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More Fires Deliberately Set Each Year, Says OFC Chief

“We have a really significant issue with respect to arson in rural Manitoba.”

– CHIEF FIRE COMMISSIONER CHRIS JONES

Provincial fire officials are urging rural residents to keep their eyes peeled for arsonists in light of a surge in deliberately lit fires in the countryside.

“We have a really significant issue with respect to arson in rural Manitoba,” Manitoba’s Chief Fire Commissioner Chris Jones told municipal leaders gathered in Brandon recently.

Statistics supplied by the Office of the Fire Commissioner (OFC) show there’s been about a one-third increase in the number of suspicious fires over the last four years, rising from 433 incidents in 2005 to 577 in 2009. Statistics for 2010 are not yet available, but Jones says the numbers have gone up significantly again in the past six months.

Half of all deliberately lit fires in the past five years classify as “outdoor property fires,” which include bale and crop fires as well as grass fires. Sheds and abandoned buildings make up about 37 per cent of all recorded suspicious fires. In 2009 the OFC statistics recorded 188 suspiciously lit grass fires.

“Some of this is (done by) transients and some of it is kids not having something to do,” Jones said. In town it starts with people setting a garbage bin on fire for kicks and then they move on to sites.

The OFC is devoting extra resources to step up enforcement and education where the problems have been most severe, said Rick Vandekerkhove, manager (operations east) at the OFC.

“Our concern is where we’re seeing a spike in certain areas,” he said, noting there’s been a recent spate of incidents in and around Portage la Prairie, and large numbers of suspicious fires set at Easterville and Swan River.

“We’ve been committing resources to these areas to work with the local fire department and police to step up enforcement and do education,” he said. That’s helped cease curb the problem, he added.

“We’ve had no arrests unfortunately, but the fires are down to zero.”

Problems with deliberately set fires always worsen in spring with tinder-dry pastures and grassy areas always a tempting target.

This spring has been unusually bad for suspicious fires in the southeast, said Rural Municipality of Labroquerie Fire Chief Alain Nadeau said recently. Their fire department has been getting called out two and sometimes three times a day.

“The fires all seem to be on the same road so it’s very obvious someone is lighting them,” he said, noting the problem is recurring along PR 302 between LaBroquerie and Zhoda.

It’s an act of “sheer stupidity” that ties up local fire department’s resources and puts people and property at extreme risk, Nadeau said.

Jones said in addition to assigning arson strike squads to problem areas, the OFC is also working to help more communities become “fire smart,” by helping local fire departments fight grass fires as effectively as possible. The OFC has also posted bylaws for municipalities to adopt and use to implement local burning bans.

Nadeau said rural property owners can help fire-fighters protect their property by keeping a short grass buffer zone of about 10 feet around cottages and outbuildings.

They can also help catch culprits setting these fires.

“Be extra vigilant,” he said. Things that help catch arsonists including noting unfamiliar vehicles in an area and the vehicles sited just after a fire has started. Cars travelling slow at night are also a suspicious activity to monitor, he said. [email protected]

About the author

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Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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