Empty building, extra billing?

City considers charging fee for fighting fires at vacant properties


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Owners of vacant buildings that catch fire could in the future be billed for efforts to battle those blazes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/07/2022 (266 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Owners of vacant buildings that catch fire could in the future be billed for efforts to battle those blazes.

The City of Winnipeg is studying the idea of charging a fee to those who own the empty structures to help cover the cost of extinguishing such blazes. The early discussions have not yet shaped a firm proposal on how that might be done.

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service officials said such a fee could cost an owner $10,000 or more per fire at a vacant home, if the service seeks council approval of the option. It cautioned that early estimate is based on existing city fees, noting exact circumstances for when it could apply have yet to be determined.

“We are looking at some options around cost recovery for fires involving vacant buildings that meet certain criteria,” said WFPS Chief Christian Schmidt, noting any changes would require council approval.

Schmidt said the city’s cost to battle fires at vacant buildings varies widely, depending on the resources required.

Concerns vacant buildings are especially vulnerable to fires have led several cities across Canada to begin exploring the idea of charging the owners after such structures are set on fire, said Scott Wilkinson, WFPS assistant chief of community risk reduction.

“It’s becoming very common to look at possible cost recovery, especially for those that are… considered problem properties… or pose a danger to the community over a period of time,” said Wilkinson.

Winnipeg has 585 registered vacant buildings (150 commercial and 435 residential), the city confirmed. WFPS responded to eight fires in vacant structures during the first three months of 2022, following 64 such blazes throughout 2021.

Wilkinson said such a fee would help ensure owners maintain and properly secure vacant buildings, which are otherwise vulnerable to arson, crime and other safety risks.

“On top of the issue of urban blight in the city, we have a lot of community risk in those areas. Unsecure, vacant buildings have people squatting in them, (so) they pose a risk to themselves. And, if there’s a fire, that building on fire can pose a risk to neighbours. And it poses a risk to our responders.”

Schmidt said the city has a problem property committee now studying the issue, which includes members of police, fire paramedic, bylaw enforcement, property and planning, and community services departments.

He said the group will explore the legal implications of such a change to help guide any potential plan.

If the committee concludes a fee should be imposed, it will propose the idea for a council vote as soon as this fall.

While those discussions continue, one councillor is raising his own motion to charge the owners of vacant buildings for fire responses.

Coun. Kevin Klein is seeking a report on charging vacant building owners the full cost for a city fire response, with some exceptions for blazes caused by natural disasters, arson or vehicle collisions.

Klein said he hopes that change would inspire owners to find new uses for buildings much sooner, preventing them from sitting vacant for years.

“My hope is it will entice people to actively get buildings back to life… We have far too may vacant buildings in the city of Winnipeg. It’s dangerous,” said Klein.

The councillor said he believes such changes would also hold owners accountable for maintaining their buildings.

“We’re not just protecting the owner of the one house. We have to do something to protect all residents, neighbours who live beside them and so on,” said Klein. “I think this is a reasonable approach that has accountability and also considers forces outside the owner’s power (when a fire occurs).”

Community activist Sel Burrows said he’s also convinced a crackdown is needed to deter empty buildings from being neglected.

Burrows said he recently set out to count unsecured, vacant buildings this spring and found 120 empty structures throughout Winnipeg he doesn’t believe have been registered with the city.

“We’re losing potentially livable housing in a time when we have a huge shortage of lower rental income housing,” said Burrows, adding he supports the idea of charging for fire services at vacant properties.

“If there was potential for owners of vacant housing to be held partially responsible for the costs of fighting that fire, that would be a very strong initiative for them not to leave them vacant for very long and make sure they are secured when they are vacant.”

Klein’s motion will be debated by the property and development committee on July 4.


Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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