The CN trestle bridge in Mayerthorpe, Alta., was made of wood and when it caught fire last week it burned like so much kindling, giving off clouds of thick black smoke and glowing bright orange.
The blaze was one of nearly two dozen suspicious fires that have scarred the small community near Edmonton in the past two weeks. And when the apparent string of blazes came to an end this weekend, it was with a revelation as disturbing as the fires themselves: the arrest, on 18 counts of arson, of 19-year-old volunteer firefighter Lawson Schalm.
The son of a former mayor, Mr. Schalm had been involved with the fire department since joining as a cadet at 15, and reportedly helped fight a number of the fires he is accused of setting.
In an emotional interview, his father, Albert Schalm, said the family has been stunned by the charges against a young man he depicted as well-behaved and widely liked.
"We didn't see it coming at all. And that probably makes it more difficult," he said.
Lawson Schalm's first court date is on Wednesday in Stony Plain, Alta.
Two months shy of graduating high school, he has acted in several school plays, according to the local newspaper, while his Facebook account depicts an interest in BMX bikes.
His father says that he was an ordinary, popular teenager with no criminal record and no disciplinary record at school.
"He's the kind of kid who always has a twinkle in his eye. He can be very humorous," said Albert Schalm. "Everyone loved him."
The family adopted Lawson and another boy 13 years ago, Mr. Schalm said. At 15, Lawson enrolled in the local fire department's cadet program, which trains kids without exposing them to live fires. Recently he became a full-fledged member of the volunteer force.
Lawson was drawn to firefighting for the sense of camaraderie, not because of any pyromania, his father said.
"He wasn't addicted to fires," said Mr. Schalm. "That was not in his nature at all."
In the middle of April, small grass fires began erupting in Mayerthorpe and the surrounding county, said Mayor Kate Patrick. The trestle bridge fire on April 26 was far more dramatic: It forced the evacuation of a nearby school and trailer park, and destroyed an important link in the local economy.
The fires only continued from there – again, mostly grass fires in the Mayerthorpe exhibition grounds and the river valley. One consumed an empty Quonset, a small corrugated steel hut.
Still, the sheer number of blazes put local nerves on edge.
"Everybody was on alert," said Ms. Patrick. "It was an anxious town."
Meanwhile, the fire department was working at all hours to douse the flames, which sprung up at odd times.
"I feel so sorry for them. They were completely exhausted," said Ms. Patrick. "Some of them were sleeping at our fire station – it was just unreal."
On Friday, beginning at 12:30 in the morning, a series of fires was set around town. Lawson, who lived with his parents just outside Mayerthorpe, arranged to stay with a friend closer to the blazes so he could help respond, said Mr. Schalm. He was arrested that day. (The RCMP did not respond to requests for comment Sunday evening.)
Mr. Schalm said the family will stand by Lawson.
"I have a non-conditional love for my son – no matter what," he said. "He will always be welcome in my home. He will always have a plate at the table."
The family has not been able to speak to Lawson yet, Mr. Schalm said.
"The first thing I'd do is hug him," he said, fighting back tears. "Tell him that I love him, that we love him, and, that, when this is all over, and no matter how it goes, that he is always our family."
Mr. Schalm was mayor during the town's last civic crisis, when four RCMP officers were fatally shot while investigating a marijuana grow-op in 2005. The family is highly regarded, said Ms. Patrick.
"They are very well respected and very good citizens in our community – they certainly didn't deserve this," she said.
Now Mr. Schalm is trying to understand how an ordinary and beloved member of his family could have allegedly struck fear in his community for weeks.