A British Columbia man has been ordered to pay half a million dollars to cover the costs of fighting a 2012 forest fire which cost nearly twice that amount to extinguish.
Earlier this month, B.C.’s Forest Appeals Commission ordered Brian Cecil Parke to pay the province $500,162.04 for fire suppression costs associated with a blaze that broke out on his property near Pavilion Lake, 120 kilometres west of Kamloops.
Parke and the government reached an agreement after the Cache Creek man appealed a 2017 determination that found him responsible for the blaze and ordered him to pay $921,957.67.
Even the reduced amount is still one of the biggest payments ever ordered from an individual in association with the costs of fighting fires. In 2013, a Cariboo-area man appealed after being ordered to pay $860,000 for causing a fire on land he owned.
According to documents filed with the appeals commission, Parke questioned the amount of time it took for the province to come after him for fire suppression costs, waiting three and a half years before announcing that they planned to try to recover the money.
Prince George Fire Centre manager Les Husband initially ordered Parke to pay the larger amount after finding that he caused the Pavilion Lake fire by failing to contain a controlled fire on his property that he ignited on April 7, 2012.
“Mr. Parke left the fire on April 8th, returning on April 9th to check on the fire, which was still smoldering and then departed without extinguishing the fire,” Husband wrote in the original determination.
The fire was reported to the B.C. Wildfire Service on May 12, and firefighters spent more than a month containing the 140-hectare blaze. It was declared out on Sept. 1, 2012.
Parke did not return a call for comment. His lawyer said the matter was settled.
‘A lot of money’
John Stefaniuk, a Manitoba-based environmental lawyer who has written on the issue of wildfire liability, said the hefty payment order is an example of provincial governments acting on promises to recoup the costs of human-caused fires.
He says railway companies and logging corporations are also often on the hook for starting blazes.
“The fact is it costs a lot of money to fight a fire,” Stefaniuk said.
“And pretty much all the provinces have legislative authority to recover those costs.”
According to the original determination, Parke submitted a report from an expert who claimed the fire could have been started by trespassers or arson.
But Husband rejected those theories.
Wages, helicopter fuel
B.C.’s Wildfire Act allows residents to start fires on rural property under conditions that include taking certain precautions to make sure the flames don’t spread to the larger forest.
“Holdover fires” — those that smolder undetected for a long time — “are a common occurrence even over winter,” Husband wrote in his report.
“In this case, Mr. Parke admitted that he did not have a machine guard down to mineral soil and also admitted that when he left the property the fire had not been extinguished but in fact was still smoldering in the middle. Best practice should have been to ensure the fire was completely extinguished.”
Husband’s original order contains an itemized breakdown of costs, including nearly $300,000 for hourly wages and $237,732 for helicopter fuel costs and flight costs.
Food, transportation and accommodation for firefighters cost $25,053.
The agreement does not include any breakdown in costs or provide any reason for the reduced payment order.