Derelict, vacant property owners could be on the hook for firefighting costs

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Property owners of vacant and derelict buildings that catch fire could soon be liable for some of the costs of extinguishing the flames.

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Property owners of vacant and derelict buildings that catch fire could soon be liable for some of the costs of extinguishing the flames.

The city’s property and development committee will vote on a motion next week to add a fire protection service fee to its vacant buildings bylaw.

The proposed fee would hit vacant building owners in the pocket book with a $340 hourly attendance fee for the district chief and driver, as well as a $1,357 hourly fee for the cost of a pumper, aerial ladder and rescue vehicles to attend.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Tom Bilous, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said the union is fully supportive of the action intended to discourage building owners from leaving their buildings vacant.

A city report says fighting a residential structural fire with this equipment and personnel for two hours costs the city just under $15,000.

Tom Bilous, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said the union is fully supportive of the action intended to discourage building owners from leaving their buildings vacant.

“At the end of the day, the less vacant buildings in the city, the safer for our members,” Bilous said Tuesday.

“After we have attended a property a second or third time, the structures are unsafe. The floors could be compromised, the stairs are gone. They have all sorts of hazards, from A to Z. But we have to assume somebody has started a fire inside to stay warm so we have to search for people and attack the fire.

“It puts our members in an unsafe situation.”

Coun. Sherri Rollins, chairwoman of the committee, said she learned more about the hazards vacant buildings pose to both firefighters and the community when she chaired the civic protection committee.

“We want property owners to do the right thing and not keep these buildings derelict,” Rollins said.

“This will deter property owners from sitting on vacant buildings and it will prevent arsons and fires. These owners are already paying the empty building fee, the boarded-up fee and now they will get dinged when there is a fire.

“I want this to be tough as nails.”

The motion was first put forward last June by former city councillors Kevin Klein — now the Tory MLA for Kirkfield Park — and Shawn Nason, who lost his re-election bid in Transcona.

A city report said if the bylaw had been in place between Jan. 1, 2019 and Dec. 31, 2021, owners of vacant buildings would have had to pay about $1.4 million to the city for firefighting fees.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Coun. Sherri Rollins, chairwoman of the committee, said she learned more about the hazards vacant buildings pose to both firefighters and the community when she chaired the civic protection committee.

The city said that in 2021 alone it would have cost more than $502,000 for 515 pieces of equipment to battle 40 fires in vacant buildings.

The bylaw won’t kick in if the fire spreads from a nearby property, is caused by a natural disaster or breaks out after a vehicle smashes into the building.

The city’s administration said in the report that another benefit could be preservation of affordable housing.

“Many vacant properties were previously affordable housing,” the report said. “Each vacant building that burns, diminishes capacity for affordable housing. By reducing the number of vacant building fires, potential affordable housing is maintained.”

Rollins said the vacant building bylaw makes building owners responsible to physically maintain and secure properties, but not all do what is needed.

“I don’t want property owners sitting on multiple properties where a fire could be looked at as a way to knock it down for free,” she said.

“This is to get property owners to do the right thing. This increase is because they are not doing the right thing now. Our goal is for everyone to comply because they want to build the best Winnipeg possible.”

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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Updated on Tuesday, January 3, 2023 8:23 PM CST: Corrects name of Kevin Kline's provincial riding

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