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Vancouver authorities investigate 2 suspicious fires from over the weekend as blazes mount

The aftermath of a fire at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, March 27, 2023.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The aftermath of a fire at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, March 27, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Arson investigators in Vancouver are looking into two suspicious fires from over the weekend, one at the Chinese Cultural Centre and another not far away on East Hastings Street.

Meanwhile, firefighters say they are responding to an increasing number of fires this year, with many of them in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside.

"This is very, very concerning to us and very concerning to the neighbourhood … we're going to do whatever we can to solve this case. It will start with identifying the person who set the fire and understanding what their motive was," said Sgt. Steve Addison on Monday about a fire behind the Chinese Cultural Centre on East Pender Street on Sunday.

This latest suspicious fire in Vancouver started Sunday afternoon outside the cultural centre in a laneway but did not burn through into the building, although it caused significant smoke and water damage to the centre,  Addison said.

'It's terrible'

Bill Kwok, who speaks for the cultural centre, pointed out the remnants of small fires around the building that people often set to keep warm at night. He said Sunday's fire was much more worrisome as people were in the building when it broke out.

"When you have a fire, it's not like someone breaking in and breaking a window. Someone could get hurt badly by this," he said. "And to lose the facility and not be able to use it for the community, it would be a shame."

Surveillance video shows a person at the location of the fire around the time it began. Officers are trying to identify the suspect.

Watch | Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim speaks about a fire at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver:

Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim visited the site on Monday to survey the damage and expressed dismay at the number of fires in the city, some of them apparently set with little regard for human life.

"It's really disappointing. We don't know exactly what happened … but it's terrible for the community. It sends a lot of wrong signals to the community. I think it scares the community and the fact that we have to deal with this crap. It's terrible."

The Vancouver Fire Rescue Service (VFRS) say there has been a significant increase in fires in the city so far this year.

 

In an email to CBC News, the fire department said there has been a 17 per cent increase in outdoor fires this January and February compared to the same months last year.

And it says one out of five fires was incendiary, meaning they were set on purpose.

The VFRS also said there has been a 340 per cent increase in outdoor fires since 2019, all specific to the Downtown Eastside. Three people have died in fires in the neighbourhood this year, while the service responded to 99 fires this week alone.

CBC News
CBC News

The second suspicious fire from this past weekend happened on Saturday, just minutes from the Chinese Cultural Centre on East Hastings.

It destroyed a commissary kitchen that houses four small businesses. Kevin McKenzie, who owns Top Rope Birria YVR, said small fires in the area are common, but Saturday's was far more destructive and worrying.

"You just kind of get used to things. You think cleaning up little fires, cleaning up this and that every day is normal," he said. "And then one day, your commissary burns down, and you realize that's not normal."

CBC News
CBC News

As Mckenzie surveyed the damage on Monday, he said his business is unlikely to return to the area, citing safety concerns.

"I want to be clear that we'd love to return to this part of the community. We'd love to serve people in this community, but right now, it's not safe for us," he said.

CBC News
CBC News

Police said despite there being two suspicious fires over the weekend, they do not have evidence to show they are connected or the work of serial arsonists.

Earlier Saturday, it took 40 firefighters to put out a fire at a building on East Broadway that had two commercial businesses on the main floor and an unoccupied suite above them.

Watch | The CBC's Michelle Gomez reports on a Vancouver cannabis store destroyed by fire:

As with the other two fires, no one was hurt. The cause is also not known.

One of the businesses destroyed, Generation Cannabis, opened in December after two years of work by three co-owners.

One of them, Robert Howes, said the fire and its aftermath are crushing.

"We were just ecstatic to be open, and we were embraced by the community, and it was going really well," he said. "So to see all of that just gone overnight, pretty heartbreaking."