Vacant buildings a fire hazard in the Glebe Annex

By Sue Stefko
(Appeared in the Glebe Report, November 2022)

While the buildings at 269 and 271 Bell Street South were slated to be demolished eventually to make way for a new project, we didn’t expect them to be destroyed so soon or in such a dramatic fashion.

At about 10:15 p.m. on Wednesday, September 29, Ottawa Fire Services began to receive multiple calls from motorists who saw smoke and flames coming from a building just off the Queensway. Nicholas DeFazio, a spokesman for the Ottawa Fire Services, says the calls came in quickly because the buildings were in such a visible location to start with and were even easier to see because noise barriers had been removed from the 417 as part of work on the Bronson offramp. This quick detection helped prevent a greater spread of the fire.

The fire crew arrived within four minutes of the first call. The first building, 269 Bell Street South, had flames in the basement as well as on both the first and second floors. The fire then spread to the attic of 271 Bell Street South. Both buildings were unoccupied, although there were signs of vagrancy in both. The site quickly grew dangerous for the fire crew – one firefighter was injured and taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. There was still power to the buildings and a live hydro wire started to arc in one of the backyards. In addition, 269 Bell was so badly damaged that there was a risk it could cave in on the fire crew.

Some residents have complained about feeling unsafe living near the buildings and bylaw complaints have been filed about the unmown grass and general lack of maintenance. Garbage and debris were strewn across the properties and entrances were not boarded up, enabling unauthorized entry. Some speculated that the fire could have been deliberately set, although the investigation was not able to determine a cause due to the extensive damage in the building where the fire started.

The site is owned by Bell Street Ottawa Incorporated and sits next to the company’s proposed development at 273 to 281 Bell Street South where four vacant homes are be demolished to build two apartment buildings – a six-storey and a four-storey, totalling 49 units. The developer also has preliminary plans to build two four-storey buildings on the site of 269 and 271, although it is in talks with the Ministry of Transportation to see if something can be built so close to a 417 off-ramp.

While the cause of the fire is unknown, unoccupied buildings are at an increased risk of fire due to several factors. When power is left connected as it was in this case, pests can damage wiring and cause electrical shorts. Illicit activities can result in accidental fires, and there is also an increased risk of arson.

Securing vacant buildings to prevent unauthorized access – usually by boarding up all entrances – is one important way to prevent fires and illicit activities and to help protect them against further deterioration. The Glebe Annex Community Association has reached out to the development team to discuss management of the site, including maintenance and preventing access, for general safety as well as to prevent future fires.

Another way to protect vacant buildings is the installation of a fire monitoring system, which connects the building’s fire alarm systems to the fire department. While the highly visible placement of these Bell Street buildings allowed flames to be spotted quickly, fires in less travelled areas could burn undetected for longer, causing more damage to the buildings and putting neighbouring houses in danger of catching fire or being damaged by smoke, swirling debris and hazardous materials.

Despite all the ways to keep vacant buildings safer –including intrusion alarms, remote video monitoring, patrols and fire suppression systems – owners/developers may not wish to invest the money in these costly systems when buildings are slated for demolition. However, in such a dense neighbourhood, where a fire can easily impact neighbouring homes, we would like to see more maintenance and preventive measures to reduce the risk of illicit activity, pest infestations and fires, for the safety of the community and for our firefighters.