Michael Barre is guilty of starting the massive Barriere-McLure forest fire that burned people out of their homes and caused millions in property losses, but the only person still mad at him is his wife.
In B.C. Provincial Court yesterday, Judge William Sundhu said he is satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Barre dropped the lit cigarette that caused the fire.
But despite that finding, the residents of Barriere and McLure still say that what happened to Mr. Barre could have happened to anyone.
"No one is mad at him," Barriere resident Bill Pieper said yesterday. "No one blames him one bit."
The only one, apparently, still holding a grudge is Mr. Barre's wife, who is angry he ever spoke about the incident, Mr. Barre said yesterday before heading to court. Reached by phone, he said his wife has asked him not to speak to reporters any more. He said she wishes he'd never spoken to the media.
After the ruling yesterday, Mr. Barre hurried past reporters, declining to talk about the verdict. "I'll speak after the sentencing," he said.
During the three-day trial in September, when Mr. Barre was facing the criminal charge of dropping a burning substance in or within one kilometre of forest, he said he had spoken too soon when he admitted he started the fire.
In the witness box, Mr. Barre said he was doing his best to be truthful and accurate. At the time he admitted his guilt, Mr. Barre said, he was overcome with emotion. Friends had lost their homes. Firefighters had descended by the hundreds into the area to battle the increasingly ferocious blast. The Louis Creek sawmill, which employed a significant number of area residents, had burned down. A suicide was linked to the fire.
Particularly devastating, Mr. Barre said at the trial, was the news that a forest-fire helicopter had gone down, killing the pilot.
Eventually, the fire that started on Mr. Barre's property burned through 26,000 hectares of forest, destroyed 75 homes and forced 3,000 people to evacuate the area in the province's worst forest-fire season in 50 years.
On the day in question, July 30, 2003, conditions were hot and dry, and Mr. Barre carried his cigarette with him up that parched hillside behind his home and dropped it.
"In those conditions, at that time and place, reasonable care was required in putting out the cigarette. It may be reasonable to contend that Mr. Barre ought not to have taken the cigarette with him up the hillside, in those conditions, and that the act of doing so was not duly diligent," Judge Sundhu said.
He dismissed suggestions from Mr. Barre's defence that people taking care of a marijuana grow operation in the vicinity could have started the fire.
Mr. Barre had told fire officials who arrived at the scene of the fire, behind his home in McLure, that he was 90-per-cent sure that he had started the blaze. He also told a reporter that he was responsible. Later, upon reflection, Mr. Barre said, he was upset and in a panic.
In the witness box, Mr. Barre said he was paying attention when he butted out his cigarette and had a routine of stomping and twisting his butts when he was done. He was deliberate in putting his cigarette in a safe, appropriate spot, he said, because he had decided not to throw his cigarette in a pit full of debris, which he knew was more dangerous.
Eileen Reilly, owner of Lily's Café in Barriere, said in an interview yesterday that when she heard someone had been charged with starting the fire, her first thought was that it just as easily could have been her who had done the deed.
"It could have been me. It could have been many people that I know," she said. "I smoke, too, and that's what many people have said. It didn't have to be his cigarette, it could have been one of ours."
Ms. Reilly said she did not know Mr. Barre before the forest fire started. She met him after hiring him to do some construction work in her restaurant. The difficulties he faced made her more willing to give him the work, she said.
Rick Appel, who lost his home in the fire, started a petition in support of Mr. Barre that was signed by more than 500 residents. A civil suit against Mr. Barre, by some of the businesses that were destroyed, is on hold pending the outcome of the judge's decision.
Crown prosecutor Jon Oliphant said that in spite of the support Mr. Barre has received from the community, the case served a purpose.
"This is to bring home general deterrence and explain to others that you can't just be dropping cigarettes in the forests," Mr. Oliphant said. "I'm not sure if this is going to stop people, but I'm hoping it will make people think twice."
Although Mr. Barre could have faced a $1-million fine and a sentence of three years in prison, Mr. Oliphant said that won't happen. No one since Mr. Barre has been charged with the same offence.
A sentencing date has been set for Nov. 29. The Crown is asking for a fine in the vicinity of $1,500.
Defence lawyer John Hogg said the judge gave a well-reasoned decision that will be impossible to appeal. "What he's saying is you can smoke in the bush, but you have to be awful careful and maybe that's the right standard," Mr. Hogg said.
For Mr. Barre, the issue of deterrence has been resolved. Although Mr. Barre feels bad about the ruling, the lawyer said his client has felt worse.
"He felt bad, bad, bad the whole way. This is just more for him to deal with," Mr. Hogg said. "He will have to live with it."