The Ontario Provincial Police is not saying much about the ongoing investigation into about 20 suspicious fires that have damaged or destroyed mostly historical structures in the rural Guelph area over the past roughly 18 months. The Ontario Fire Marshals Office is saying even less.
Most of the fires have been reported in the early hours of the morning, and all appear to have been deliberatly set before sunrise.
The fires – most within a few kilometres of Guelph - have gutted or burned to the ground historic farmhouses, barns and sheds throughout the Guelph-Eramosa, Puslinch, and Wellington County area.
The fires destroy property, are a threat to public safety, and a significant drain on emergency services resources, a Wellington County OPP spokesperson said Tuesday.
Fire crews battled three new fires last Thursday morning, two near Erin, another closer to Rockwood. All three resembled others in the string of suspicious fires, particularly in relation to the early morning hours, and the abandoned and isolated nature of the properties.
Cst. Marylou Schwindt, media relations and community safety officer with Wellington County OPP said there are a number of investigators dedicating much of their time to the fires. They are looking into links between them.
“In the crime office, yes, there have been a few guys dedicated to these fires,” Schwindt said by telephone.
“The detectives that are assigned to the case are diligently working at it,” she said. “It is concerning to them. We are concerned about the damage that’s being done, and the resources that are being used. But we’re also concerned that at some point someone might get hurt. We don’t want to see that happen.”
There is always the possibility that a fire fighter could get hurt, either fighting the fire or travelling to them. People are risking their safety to attend to the fires, she said.
While there have been numerous suspicious fires with similar characteristics, Schwindt said it is still unknown whether the fires are connected. As to the motive behind the fires, that is also unknown.
“They are still investigating that,” she said, adding that a fourth fire last Thursday evening in Rockwood was different than the three fires that morning, and there is a chance it is not related. Unlike the other fires, the property was occupied, hooked up to services, and in town. Others have been rural and abandoned.
Schwindt was not aware of details around things like the psychological profile of culprits, but said that would be part of the investigation. Such information would not be disclosed to the public.
“In our county, I haven’t seen something like this, and I started here 10 years ago,” she said. “For number and type of fires, this is unusual. Which is why they are looking at a link between them.”
Possible links are also being investigated between Guelph area fires and recent blazes in neighbouring Halton Region, she added.
“They are working in conjunction with Halton Police,” he said.
The Office of the Fire Marshal has been called in to investigate the fires. But Todd Clarke, assistant deputy fire marshal, said the agency had no comment on the fires, given that a police investigation is ongoing. He did, however, acknowledge that there “may be an interest from the public and the press for information with respect to certain fires.”
Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management is mandated to investigate the origin, cause and circumstances of certain fires in the province, Clarke said in an email. The criminality associated with those fires is a police manner, he explained.
The OPP is seeking the public assistance in the ongoing investigation.
“We really want to emphasis to people that if you see someone in those early morning hours, where they would not typically be, and you wonder why they might be there, grab a plate number, give us a call, and let us follow up on it,” Schwindt added.
Keeping eyes and ears open, especially on rural properties, is an important service the public can offer to assist the investigation.
Anyone with any information about any of the fires is asked to contact the Wellington County OPP at 1-888-310-1122.