Fearing someone will get badly injured or killed by an arsonist, Vancouver police are urging the public to help solve a crime spree that has seen 25 fires set in vacant buildings this year.
“Police are asking the public to be vigilant in the area of vacant homes, to report any suspicious activity immediately to 911,” Constable Jason Doucette said in a news conference Thursday.
The latest flurry of fires came earlier this week when two vacant buildings burned in one night. There have been eight suspicious fires in the past two weeks in Vancouver, including one that destroyed Kerrisdale Baptist Church early Tuesday morning. The church, a heritage building which dates to 1912, had been sitting empty for some time and was facing demolition. It took 50 firefighters to extinguish the blaze and keep it from jumping to nearby residences.
“Fortunately there have not been any serious injuries, but it’s just a matter of time before one of these fires spreads to a nearby building, including other houses,” Constable Doucette said.
“We’re concerned [about] these fires in vacant homes. It may seem like you’re lighting a fire to a vacant home and no one else will be affected … [but] a fire from a vacant house could easily spread to an occupied home and could lead to death,” he said. “Investigators are working to determine if there is a motive, if there’s any links between these fires and we’re asking for … the public to come forward with any information that they may have.”
Constable Doucette said Vancouver police have set up an arson tip line at 604-717-0605 or people can call BC Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
He said most of the buildings that were the target of an arsonist were awaiting demolition.
“We’re not faulting the particular homeowners in these cases. We hope that they are doing their best to keep their places safe because they still own them, they are still responsible for them and I’m sure they don’t want their places burning down,” he said.
Constable Doucette said investigators don’t have any suspects. “Investigators right now are comparing details of all the reported fires. We’re looking for any sort of similarity, if any exists, any potential motives; trying to figure out if there is a single suspect [or] more than one individual.”
Although no members of the public have been injured in the latest fires, police have good reason to worry. Vancouver police are still investigating the death of Willene Wah Ying Chong, who died in a deliberately-set house fire on the morning of Sept. 11, 2008.
The arsonist who started the blaze, which trapped the 77-year-old grandmother inside her home on E. 55th Ave., is suspected of lighting numerous other fires, including several that night.
Ms. Chong moved to Canada from Hong Kong in 1949 before marrying and having five children and seven grandchildren. Her son Daniel was badly injured when he broke a basement window and tried to enter the burning house in a failed attempt to save her.
Earlier this year, a $10,000 reward for information leading to the identification and conviction of anyone responsible for Ms. Chong’s murder was reposted by the Vancouver Police Board.
“The pain never leaves us and we are haunted by the nightmares of that day,” family member Jerry Chong says in a statement on the BC Crime Stoppers website. “Our family needs closure and for that to happen we need to bring her killer to justice.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association, a global non-profit headquartered in the United States, about 22 per cent of intentionally set fires occur in vacant properties.
“The most common item first ignited in intentional structure fires was rubbish, trash or waste,” states a 2014 report by the NFPA. “Half (51%) of intentionally set home structure fires occurred between 3:00 p.m. and midnight. … The most common area of origin in intentional home structure fires was the bedroom (12% of these fires). … In storage properties, the garage was the most common specified area of origin (24% of fires), and in mercantile or business properties the most common specified area of origin was the bathroom (8% of fires).”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story included an incorrect surname for Willene Wah Ying Chong and Jerry Chong.Report Typo/Error