Vancouver police, fire and city officials are undertaking a coordinated investigation into the reasons for a meteoric rise in fires in empty houses in 2016.
On Sunday, they caught a small break when firefighters stopped, and police arrested, a 38-year-old Vancouver man seen running from a burning home on Drummond Drive near West 2nd.
On Monday, Jonathan Lewis Durocher was charged in Vancouver Provincial Court with one count of arson causing damage.
Const. Jason Doucette, a police spokesman, said they’re looking into Durocher’s background to see if he can be tied to any of the other fires set in vacant homes.
A check of the Provincial Court records show that Durocher has a lengthy interaction with the judicial system. He has been before courts in Vancouver, North Vancouver, Richmond and the Downtown Community Court at least two dozen times since 2014.
But both police and fire officials say there may be other causes and people responsible for some of the other 28 suspicious house fires this year. Some may be accidental in nature, caused by squatters or homeless people who set fires to keep warm, according to Fire Chief John McKearney. Other causes, such as arson for insurance purposes or to avoid new city rules requiring careful deconstruction and recycling of building materials, are also being looked at.
“At this point we are considering all different motives and linking the fires if there is a relationship, and trying to move our investigation forward,” Doucette said. “We are doing our best to stop this behaviour. It is dangerous.”
This year’s dramatic rise in suspicious house fires compares with only two or three in each of the last three years, McKearney said. The rise has caught the attention of police, who are worried about the concentration of fires affecting vacant homes, Staff Sgt. Randy Fincham said.
“We are shifting investigators over to working on the arsons, based on volume and call-out,” Fincham said.
Speaking carefully because he said he didn’t want to defame any developers, Fincham said investigators will be looking at whether some of the homes were burned by their owners.
“Motive is going to be a significant factor in these, and that is a motive that is out there, a potential motive, but whether we have gathered any evidence to support that it is too early to say,” he said.
The fire department has declined to release a list of the addresses of the fires, saying they had been told by police that some of them were the subject of a specific investigation. They also referred questions to the city about whether some were set because of Vancouver’s recycling rules, saying they couldn’t comment.
Tobin Postma, a city spokesman, said Vancouver is looking at whether there are any connections between the fires and proposed developments.
“At this point we are undertaking an analysis of all the properties that experienced fires to get a clear understanding of where they were at in our permitting process, so it is too early to comment on the potential cause or motivation for the fire,” Postma said.
Last week the city said it was considering charging owners of vacant homes for firefighting costs if they didn’t properly board-up their buildings.
“The City of Vancouver’s chief building official and the fire chief will be providing recommendations designed to increase security in vacant homes such as a more robust board-up standard,” said a statement issued by the city’s communications department. “We are also exploring the ability for the city to charge-out for fire suppression and investigation services in vacant homes where the owner is derelict in their duty to properly secure the home.”
Doucette said he had no information to suggest that activists might also be involved in torching homes for political purposes. He also said he hadn’t heard of suggestions that homeowners were setting fire to their own buildings because of the city’s new plan to levy a tax on empty homes.
“We look at all different types of motives and if that comes up then it would be something we would look at and consider. But at this point we don’t have any information that would lead us to that.”
But when asked whether they were investigating whether some homes were burned to avoid the city’s home-recycling rules, Doucette wouldn’t rule it out.
“When we look at motive, we look at the underlying issues and what the incentive is here and why people are doing it,” he said. “We have not narrowed down any one specific motive.”
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