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firefighting costs

Flames engulf a tree during a wildfire.RICK WILKING/Reuters

A Cariboo-area man who was fined more than $860,000 for starting a wildfire while camping on his own property is appealing the penalty.

According to documents filed with the provincial Forest Appeals Commission, Robert Unger was determined to be responsible for a wildfire that began on his property and spread to Crown land.

"… Mr. Unger lit a campfire on land he owned, when it was unsafe to do so, and he failed to establish a fuel break around the fire," the documents said. "The fire escaped and caused a wildfire, and the ministry responded to the wildfire." Mr. Unger's land was not in an area covered by a fire department, the decision noted.

In May, 2011, Darrell Orosz, the manager of the Cariboo Fire Centre, issued a decision ordering Mr. Unger to pay the costs of fighting the fire. Mr. Orosz noted that he did not order Mr. Unger to pay compensation to the province for damage to public property, which is possible under provincial laws.

Mr. Unger asked for a review, and the same fire centre manager determined – again – that Mr. Unger should pay.

Mr. Orosz acknowledged that Mr. Unger did not willfully cause the fire, but said that alone does not preclude payment of costs. The ability to pay is not a factor in a decision, he wrote.

"I have considered ability to pay but conclude that the legislature could not have intended ability to pay to be a valid consideration, since in many cases, and certainly in the most serious cases, the government's fire control costs will be beyond the ability of most persons to pay, in the absence of adequate insurance coverage," he wrote in the original decision.

Patrick Vert, a spokesman for the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, which includes the B.C. Wildfire Management Branch, said the ministry is limited in what it can say about an individual case, but that humans cause nearly half the wildfires in British Columbia every year.

"When a wildfire is caused by a human, there may be an investigation of the fire," Mr. Vert said in an e-mail response.

The Wildfire Act allows the province to recover wildfire suppression costs or damages from people deemed responsible, he said.

"The circumstances of each human-caused fire are unique as are the area affected and the associated costs and damages and the amounts can vary widely depending on the specific circumstances of the fire, from zero to millions of dollars," Mr. Vert said. "For example, in March 2012, the province recovered $2.1-million from a fire caused by Telus."

Colleen Smith, executive director of the Forest Appeals Commission, said the commission cannot comment on individual cases. She said decisions of the commission can be appealed, if there are reasonable grounds, to B.C. Supreme Court.

Mr. Unger's appeal to the commission is scheduled to be heard later this month.