Fires in Cork's vacant buildings: 'Only matter of time before lives are lost'

Spate of blazes across city has prompted calls for owners of the properties to be billed for their rescue, as well as better security measures
Fires in Cork's vacant buildings: 'Only matter of time before lives are lost'

A fireman battles the fire at the R+H Hall plant, Ringaskiddy, Cork Docks. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Another fire in another long-time vacant building in Cork City has prompted fresh calls for a joint Garda-council approach to tackle vacancy and dereliction.

There are also warnings that it is only a matter of time before lives are lost.

It has also been established that the owners of vacant or derelict properties where fires break out are not billed for the cost of extinguishing the fire — the cost falls on the taxpayer as part of the routine funding of the fire service.

It follows the latest blaze in an old vacant office building on Cork’s south docks in November, which had been secured, emptied of anything of salvageable value, and in an area which was being patrolled by security contractors.

Five units of the Cork CIty Fire Brigade responded to the blaze in the former R+H Hall offices. Picture: Cork City Fire Brigade Twitter
Five units of the Cork CIty Fire Brigade responded to the blaze in the former R+H Hall offices. Picture: Cork City Fire Brigade Twitter

Sinn Féin TD Thomas Gould, who has seen several vacant homes in his constituency damaged by suspicious fires, has now written to city council officials, calling for an urgent meeting between the local authority, gardaí and the fire service to address the issue.

“I am very concerned that a failure to secure these sites, and indeed their vacancy, is adding to the pressure of the emergency services and ultimately putting lives at risk,” he said.

“I am formally requesting that Cork City Council convene a meeting with An Garda Síochána and the fire brigade to identify potentially dangerous derelict sites and put in place an action plan to quickly secure these but also to resolve dangerous dereliction across Cork City.” 

Mr Gould also pointed out that the estimated €3m owed in outstanding derelict sites levies could, if collected, be used to acquire some of these what are in many cases dangerous sites through compulsory purchase order powers, in the hope to transform them.

Suspected arson

It comes as gardaí continue their investigation into the latest fire in a vacant property in the city, which is believed to have been started deliberately.

While in some cases, the fires have been started by people who gain unauthorised access to the properties in a bid to find shelter and keep warm, in other cases, arson is suspected.

Just after 2am on Wednesday, November 23, firefighters were alerted to a blaze at a former office building associated with the R&H Hall site on Kennedy Quay, in the city’s south docks.

The former Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Sunday's Well, Cork, was badly damaged by fire last September, the fourth blaze at that site in recent years.
The former Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Sunday's Well, Cork, was badly damaged by fire last September, the fourth blaze at that site in recent years.

Five units rushed to the scene to find the structure well ablaze through the roof. It took about two hours to bring the fire under control. The structure was gutted but the fire did not spread to adjoining buildings. No injuries were reported.

But around the same time, the alarm was raised after a woman entered the water at Bachelors Quay. 

While the fire service was dampening down on Kennedy Quay, it dispatched units to the water rescue, to help an off-duty garda who had entered the water to save the woman.

The incident underlines how easily the city's fire fighting resources can be stretched.

It was the second suspicious fire in that area of the south docks this month, and the third in almost two years.

On November 10, several units of the fire brigade dealt with what they call “a commercial fire” in the landmark R&H Hall grain silo structures.

Rugby fans heading to the Munster v South Africa clash in Pairc Ui Chaoimh were encouraged to avoid the Marina as fire crews worked to make the scene safe.

Cork City Fire Crew battle blaze at Sunset Ridge Hotel in 2021. Picture: Cork City Fire Brigade Twitter
Cork City Fire Crew battle blaze at Sunset Ridge Hotel in 2021. Picture: Cork City Fire Brigade Twitter

Again, there were no injuries arising out of this fire.

Firefighters also dealt with a relatively small blaze in the empty silos in January 2021, but they faced a more challenging blaze in 2006 after the towering structures were targeted by arsonists.

Enormous flames shot from the tops of all eight steel bins. The concrete structures on either side were also ablaze.

Seven units of the fire brigade were deployed to that incident, with backup from crews and a 110ft aerial platform from Carrigaline required.

Early morning rush-hour traffic within a two-mile radius was diverted for up to two hours.

The office gutted on Wednesday and the silos are part of a landbank of some 31 acres in the south docks, which is owned since 2019 by developers O'Callaghan Properties.

The site, which includes the landmark redbrick Odlums building, is earmarked for a massive regeneration scheme which is currently going through the planning appeals process.

Site lies vacant and disused

In the meantime, the site lies vacant and disused, pending a planning decision.

In a statement, O’Callaghan Properties said the targeting and damaging of vacant buildings is a very serious problem in the city.

“It is made worse by its impact on fire service and resources which is very regrettable,” the company said.

“If people are really determined to gain access to vacant buildings, then they will probably be able to do so, whatever security arrangements are in place.

In Cork, vacant buildings are being targeted by professional thieves who are using sophisticated tools and cutting equipment to gain entry — that is a fact.

“In the case of our own site in south docks, the vacant buildings are fenced off, wherever possible.

“We have boarded up windows, reinforced doors with steel, metal cladding and bolts.

“Some of our buildings are listed which further restricts the security interventions we can make while maintaining the historic integrity of the building.

“To counteract this, we have fulltime mobile security patrols continuously monitoring the area.

“We have removed anything of value — copper, steel and lead — from the buildings and there is now nothing of salvageable value left.” 

Despite the security, a fire still broke out.

Other suspicious blazes

Vacant sites with less security have also been badly damaged by suspicious fires.

Firefighters have had to deal with fires at the vacant Sunset Ridge Hotel site near Blarney in June 2021, and last June.

Two weeks after that blaze, firefighters were called to a suspicious fire at the former Vita Cortex site on the Kinsale Road.

Last September, the former Good Shepherd Convent building in Sunday’s Well was badly damaged by fire — the fourth blaze at that site in recent years.

Aerial shot of the damage caused by a fire at St Kevin's derilict building on Cork's Northside in 2017. Picture: Evan Shelly
Aerial shot of the damage caused by a fire at St Kevin's derilict building on Cork's Northside in 2017. Picture: Evan Shelly

The iconic St Kevin’s building on the Lee Road, which is now the focus of a major LDA housing scheme, was gutted by a huge blaze in 2017.

Mr Gould said there have also been several fires in vacant, and in some cases, derelict homes, including one on October 16, on the northside of the city.

In 2021, the fire brigade dealt with fires in derelict homes in Farranree in February, in the Strawberry Hill and the Sunday’s Well in March, in two derelict homes in Shanakiel in July, and in a derelict house in Blarney later the same month.

Sources say the problem of fires in vacant or derelict buildings is increasing, and that it does put a strain on resources.

Council response

In response to a series of questions on the issue, Cork City Council said it may contact the owners of vacant or derelict sites following a fire incident, but that it “depends on the situation”. It did not expand further.

It did, however, say that its Building Control section understands that the owners of R&H have undertaken measures to prevent reasonable, unauthorised entry to the site and buildings.

"There is a general duty on all property owners to ensure their buildings and property are properly maintained and safe," it said.

The blaze at the former Vita Cortex site. 
The blaze at the former Vita Cortex site. 

"Responsibility for dangerous structures and places rests with property owners.

"Cork City Council has statutory powers in relation to dangerous structures and places under the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1964 in maintaining public safety.

"The fire and building control department has successfully used the enforcement powers within the act to initiate property owners to make buildings safe or prevent unauthorised entry."

The council also said it is working on a portfolio of over 400 vacant and derelict sites.

“Not all vacant sites are derelict,” it said.

“This is important, because the instruments available to tackle dereliction are not available for vacancy.

“There are currently 110 properties on the derelict sites register.

Each of these is being proactively addressed by the derelict sites team.

“More recently, Cork City Council is now included in the Croí Conaithe scheme, which provides grants for vacant properties.

“Details of Croí Conaithe, along with other supports from the city council are available on the council’s website.

“In addition to inspections undertaken by the council, members of the public are encouraged to report derelict and vacant sites to the council.

“As part of our plan for dereliction, we will be acquiring additional sites in 2023.

“In addition, we will be taking a more aggressive approach to the collection of levies. This is all in line with the strategy and policy that was adopted by the council in 2019, which is under constant review.” 

Mr Gould, however, says he worried that it’s only a matter of time before a person who may be taking shelter in one of these buildings, or a firefighter tasked to respond to the fires in such buildings, is injured or killed.

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