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What’s behind all the recent vacant home fires?

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Over the past month a number of vacant homes have gone up in flames in Windsor.

“We've had an uptick in the last couple of weeks,” said Mike Coste, the chief fire prevention officer for Windsor Fire and Rescue Services.

The cause is usually undetermined, but investigators believe there could be many reasons it’s happening and many ways to make it stop.

Two homes on Windsor Avenue have caught fire multiple times over the past month.

A recent fire on Riverside Drive closed the road and burned the vacant house to the ground.

“They're all caused by human interaction of some sort, whether it's intentional or accidental,” said Const. Matthew Adam, an investigator with the Windsor police arson unit.

Investigators have little evidence to work with, no witnesses and can only make theories which they can’t prove.

“Maybe people trying to stay warm. They're breaking into these buildings. Maybe the fire gets away from them,” suggested Const. Adam. “Otherwise it could be something intentional. They want to see something burn or there's some other criminal reason behind it.”

But Coste with Windsor Fire and Rescue services worries it’s the symptom of a bigger problem.

“I'm not saying anything anybody else doesn't know out there right now. Mental health and homelessness is through the roof,” he said.

The City of Windsor has many vacant homes, but the exact number is unknown.

“This is one of those issues that we've never really seen before and I'm concerned,” said Renaldo Agostino, the city councillor representing downtown Windsor.

But a new three per cent vacant home tax — which goes into effect in the new year — is a step towards finding out.

Agostino said the tax was created to fill vacant homes, but a positive unintended consequence could also be quelling these nuisance fires.

“It's an opportunity to an olive branch to speak to some of these homeowners and mostly out of town to say ‘hey, what are you doing with this property?’ You know, let's get it up to the right standard and let's get somebody in there because we need them,” Agostino said.

They’re problematic for other reasons.

“There's a large drain on resources,” said Const. Adam, who notes fire suppression crews, patrol officers, city building inspectors, utility workers, fire investigators and possibly the fire marshal get involved, even with nuisance fires.

But potentially a bigger issue is that these fires also pull resources away from other pressing fires, or crimes, he said.

“I would say probably half probably 70 per cent to 60 per cent of our staff are there,” said Coste, referring to the big fire on Riverside Drive last week. “So if we have another structure fire we don't have another city vehicle. You know, we'll be like ambulance. We don't have any more vehicles.”

Coste worries eventually the person who starts the fire won’t get out in time, or a firefighter will get hurt battling a nuisance blaze.

“You're putting firefighters at risk. Because when they go there, their job is to put a fire out,” said Coste. “And that's what we take pride in saving people and it would be sad if we lost somebody over something that's not there.”

There are some ways the public can help.

“If you see somebody walking in and out of a vacant house that's boarded up give the Windsor police a call so they can get there so that we can stop any criminal activity that may happen,” said Coste.

“So we can try and get this person off the street and get them help because that's really what it is.”

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