The B.C. Forest Appeals Commission says a man who lit a large debris pile on fire that eventually caused a wildfire should pay the provincial government nearly $450,000 for firefighting costs and lost timber resources.
In an appeal decision released last week, the commission found Clarke Matthiesen tried to blame an arsonist for the wildfire that started on his property west of Quesnel, B.C., in the province’s interior.
The decision says Matthiesen lit the debris fire on a property he owns with his brother in February 2019, thinking snow around the blaze would work as a “fuel break.”
But more than two months later, Matthiesen and his brother came upon a grass fire nearby, which they couldn’t put out with shovels.
The decision says Matthiesen then drove to a neighbouring property to report the fire, and the BC Wildfire Service responded that evening.
The commission rejected Matthiesen’s claims that his neighbour’s grandson could have lit the fire, and found instead that it was a “holdover” from the debris pile that measured 14 metres by 16 metres.
He was ordered to pay a $2,350 fine, $260,369 for fire control costs and $179,344 for destruction of Crown-owned timber resources.
Matthiesen testified the burn pile was still smouldering days after it was first lit, but in the weeks that followed, he passed the site “dozens of times” and didn’t see it smoking, and nor was it hot when he checked it by hand.
The commission found he didn’t use water to ensure it was out, or make a new fuel break as the snow around the debris pile melted.
Matthiesen, who was not represented by a lawyer, gave evidence that his neighbours’ grandchild was a “troubled” youth involved in gang and drug activity.
He said that after he had illegal cannabis plants removed from nearby government land, the neighbours’ grandson threatened him in December 2018, writing: “Your cabin and everything you have gonna be burnt to the ground.”
The commission rejected Matthiesen’s claims, in part, because he didn’t mention the possibility of arson when the fire was under investigation.
“In particular, if (Matthiesen) thought the threat had been serious and it was a likely cause of the wildfire, it would have been at the top of his mind when the wildfire actually occurred,” the commission’s ruling says.
“The possibility that the wildfire began as an act of arson, however, was not mentioned until years later.”
A BC Wildfire Service specialist determined the wildfire was due to an “escape” from Matthiesen’s burn pile, and didn’t find any suspicious materials such as a cigarette butt or matches near where the wildfire ignited, the decision says.
The commission found the arson claims “unproven and unlikely.”