Woman feels safe only after vacant home hit by arson

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Tracy Ball wishes she’d been wrong.

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Tracy Ball wishes she’d been wrong.

She was forced to flee from her home this week because of a fire in a vacant home next door.

She had reported it to the city and complained for years, fearing it would be targeted for arson.

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Tracy Ball, left, and Aaron McDowell view the remains of 195 Matheson Avenue East after its demolition due to a fire friday morning.

She was right.

Thursday at about 6:30 a.m., smoke was seeping into her Matheson Avenue East home from the neighbouring house just as fire trucks pulled up.

“Two minutes later, we were told we had to get out,” she said Friday.

“I looked for my photo albums and my cat; my daughter said we have to get out now.”

The neighbouring property has a hole in the ground filled with rubble and water used to douse the blaze, and Ball said it shouldn’t have happened.

“I’ve been complaining about this house for years,” she said.

“I even talked to a couple of councillors and they said this is a ticking time bomb and now it has gone up. We felt powerless because the city and the fire department weren’t listening.

“It baffles me. We pour so much money in when it burns and pay firefighters to be there all day, but why wouldn’t we stop the fire long before it started?”

It’s an issue Mynarski city council candidate Aaron McDowell has championed. Earlier in the campaign, McDowell told the Free Press the danger posed by vacant and derelict homes is the reason he decided to run for council.

“How many times do I have to scream (at the owner of a vacant house) that you’re not taking care of your property?” he said. “Take care of the property or sell it.”

McDowell, who was Coun. Ross Eadie’s executive assistant, tried to help Ball by getting the city to make the owner of the house fix it or have the city seize the house.

He said there is a simple solution.

“Under my plan, this would have never happened,” he said. “The city would have taken title, sold it, and taken 60 per cent of the money to land dedication reserve to fix parks and plant trees. Instead, we pay money for firefighters and water and the neighbourhood has been victimized.

“I want a proactive solution.”

In a news release on Thursday, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said they responded to the blaze in a single-family bungalow at 6:40 a.m., and tried to put it out with an offensive attack.

But firefighters were forced to retreat from inside the house, because the fire was well advanced, and resort to pouring water onto the blaze with hand hoses.

The house was deemed to be a loss and heavy equipment was used to knock it down to open it up more so firefighters could look for hot spots.

There were no injuries and the cause is under investigation.

City spokesman Kalen Qually said there are things the city can do, including taking title to a vacant and derelict building, but it can only be initiated after an owner is convicted for continued non-compliance with a vacant building bylaw order.

“At that point, the city can refer the building to the Taking Title Without Compensation process,” Qually said. “Both the totality of the building condition and the active level of collaboration with the building owner are key factors that are considered when a building is referred.”

As well, Qually said bylaw officers can educate owners about their responsibilities, and issue compliance orders, penalties and fines, inspection fees, and boarding fees which start at $2,517 and increase about $2,000 every year.

It’s not known if the owner of the property has been convicted.

Ball, who has lived in her house for 27 years, said the original neighbour was great and kept her home and property in “meticulous” condition.

“She was almost 100 when she died 11 years ago. Her son sold the property to the current owner and, at first, it was great. The guy was an antique dealer. But then I realized he was using (the house) as a storage facility and then people began breaking into the garage and then the house.”

Ball said she has had to confront people high on methamphetamine in her own yard after they broke into the neighbouring house and came over.

“The last six weeks there were three to four groups a night going inside,” she said.

“The trees and shrubs were left to grow so high outside the windows the firefighters had to cut them down just to get in to fight the fire. I felt sorry for the firefighters.”

Interestingly, while the house next door was torched by an unknown arsonist, Ball said she had her best sleep in years on Thursday night.

“There was a sense of ‘not tonight,’” she said. “There will be no shattering glass tonight.

“It took a long time, but I feel safer now.”

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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