Appeals commission rejects British Columbia landowner’s claim of neighbor arson, sticks him with $450K bill

Clarke Matthiesen claimed his neighbors’ grandson caused the 2019 fire that originated on his property, and not his unregistered burn, according to the CBC News.

It took B.C. Wildfire Service crews two weeks to contain the fire that  started as a holdover from Matthiesen’s debris burn. He’s now on the hook for about $450,000 after an appeals commission rejected his claim that his neighbors’ grandson started the fire. The Forest Appeals Commission dismissed his appeal, finding that his explanation was “both unproven and unlikely.”
British Columbia Fire Service photo
British Columbia Fire Service photo

Investigators had concluded that a holdover fire from an improperly extinguished open burn of Matthiesen’s was the cause. The burn covered around 224 square metres — under 2500 square feet —  and a holdover fire can smolder underground for days or even months. “The burning of a large debris pile, as in this case, is inherently risky and can result in significant destruction if wildfires result from the burning. It is the responsibility of those engaged in such burning activity to ensure they have met the legislated requirements,” the appeals decision says.

The wildfire burned for about two weeks some 150 kilometres west of Quesnel, B.C. Matthiesen was ordered to pay $179,344 for damage to Crown resources, $260,369 for the cost of fighting the fire, $7,546 for reforestation costs, and a $2,350 administrative penalty.

Matthiesen hadn’t raised his arson theory with any officials or investigators in the four years before his appeal. He did not have a burn permit for the fire he started, and had no firefighting tools or water nearby as required. An investigator said Matthiesen’s burn pile included root wads from trees, which are often involved in holdover fires.

“The appellant was unaware of the degree of risk posed by holdover fires, the appropriate way to check for hotspots, or the need to maintain a fuel break even after the initial burning phase,” the decision says.

Matthiesen is one of the latest people ordered to pay huge fines under a section of provincial law that allows the government to recover suppression costs from those responsible for starting wildfires. In another recent case, another man was billed for another 2019 fire, according to another CBC News report.

A northwest British Columbia resident was billed more than $100,000 to cover the province’s cost of a fire that started on his property four years ago. Eldon Whalen was ordered to pay $100,688 for a fire that spread from a burn pile on his property in the Kispiox Valley northwest of Prince George.

The open fire was deliberately ignited, and if not for the response of the B.C. Wildfire Service, the impacts would likely have been even more widespread, according to the decision from B.C.’s Forest Appeals Commission.

Close calls and injuries in Texas

A 215-acre wildfire in San Jacinto County was contained on August 2 according to a report by ABC-13 News. That afternoon, resources were requested from Texas A&M Forest Service (TAMFS) on the Snowhill Fire. Shortly after 1 p.m. crews on the fire reported moderate to high fire behavior with several structures threatened, evacuations under way, and road closures in place.

The agency also reported that two of its firefighters suffered burn injuries when fire behavior intensified at about 5 p.m.

The agency’s 24-hour report noted that fire behavior intensified on a part of the fire where a dozer crew was working. The two injured firefighters were not wearing PPE properly and both experienced first- and second-degree burns to the face, hands, and sides.

The two firefighters were transported to a hospital and both were treated and released.

Two days later the agency released its 72-hour report on an aircraft incident in Travis County.

On August 1 at about 10:30 p.m. an air tactical aircraft working a different fire was involved in an incident at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport — about 5 miles southeast of downtown Austin — after flying the Powder Keg Pine Fire near Bastrop, about 150 miles southwest of Lake Livingston near the location of the Snowhill Fire.

Texas map

TAMFS resources were requested on August 1 on the Powder Keg Pine Fire in Bastrop County. Numerous aircraft were dispatched, including the Air Attack Platform at the Gillespie County Airport in Fredericksburg. The aircraft is a King Air C90A turboprop registered to Safford Aviation Service in Coolidge, Arizona (which had not yet replied to a request for comment when this was posted).

At about 8:40 p.m. the aircraft was released from the fire and made a 30-minute flight back to the Gillespie County Airport. On approach, though, the pilot and ATGS reported an issue with landing gear indicators; just two of the three indicated that the landing gear was down and locked. The pilot and ATGS attempted to fix the issue manually, and at about 9:30 p.m. they reported they had two hours of fuel left and intended to fly to Austin-Bergstrom, an FAA-controlled airport, where they’d do fly-bys so the control tower could see whether the landing gear was actually down. After two fly-bys, the tower told them it appeared to be down, and they approached for landing.

Upon landing the aircraft, though, the right landing gear collapsed, and the right propeller blades contacted the concrete and were damaged. The right gear appeared to have collapsed back into the aircraft gear hold, according to the report.

Neither the pilot nor the ATGS was injured and no civilians were injured. Both the pilot and ATGS were in constant radio communication with TAMFS dispatch in College Station, and the aircraft was tracked using the real-time map-based Automated Flight Following (AFF) system. The NTSB will investigate.

Spectrum News reported that Texas A&M Forest Service, the state’s lead agency for wildfire response, on Monday raised the state’s preparedness level to 4 — its second-highest level. The agency said over the past seven days it has responded to 80 wildfires burning 8,521 acres, with 41 fires since Friday.

The forecast for this week calls for more triple-digit temperatures with few chances for rain, and 164 Texas counties are now under burn bans.

TELL CONGRESS we need to pay firefighters!

Did you know federal firefighters are up for a big pay cut at the end of September? They are. You agree with that? We don’t either.

firefighter fiscal cliffThe federal government’s fiscal year runs from October 1 of one calendar year through September 30 of the next, and if Congress doesn’t act to pass legislation, then the current temporary funding to retain firefighters runs out! This puts federal firefighters and their families in a helluva bind — they will be forced to choose between staying in a job they love with dramatically less pay, or finding better-paying work to get by. The Forest Service itself has testified before Congress that without a permanent pay solution, somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of its firefighters will leave the ranks — triggering unsafe work environments for remaining fire crews and leaving many fires unstaffed.

Join with us and the GRASSROOTS WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS and sign this petition to make sure Congress knows what’s at stake here. “We will give the signed petition to each member of Congress,” says Riva Duncan, the organization’s vice president, “and we’ll urge them to avoid the Firefighter Fiscal Cliff. Please share this petition with your family, friends, colleagues — and anyone else who cares about this nation’s beloved public lands.”

SIGN THE PETITIONLearn more about the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and how you can help here:

Oregon trains National Guard crew

Airmen from the 173rd Fighter Wing recently spent five days of wildland fire training with the Oregon Department of Forestry in preparation for their role in assisting with the 2023 fire season.

Air National Guard Magazine featured a story about ODF firefighters lighting a controlled blaze during training for the 173rd Fighter Wing Airmen at Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Adriana Scott)
(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Airman 1st Class Adriana Scott)

“We are tasked with training Guardsmen on Operations Plan Smokey,” said Jake Barnett, protection supervisor for ODF. He said this initial training consists of 32 hours of in-class and hands-on instruction. Airmen are ready to assist the state of Oregon if called up during emergencies and natural disasters. Operation Plan Smokey provides extra resources to the state from the National Guard via an interagency agreement between the Oregon Military Department and the ODF. Training covered fire behavior, tool use, and communications. The last day included a burn in sagebrush and tall grass. Oregon red-carded 20 new firefighters for the state, and Col. Lee Bouma, 173rd FW commander, said they trained an extra three crews this year.

National Firefighter Registry opens for profession-wide cancer monitoring

The National Firefighter Registry (NFR) officially opens its enrollment portal today after a few months in pre-launch testing and years of preparation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Wildland and structural firefighters who register and share their exposure histories at will help support the NFR’s goal of understanding and reducing cancer in firefighters.

The registry seeks comprehensive participation and notes four objectives that firefighters will support by enrolling:

      • “Help protect your brothers and sisters in the fire service from developing cancer
      • “Help lessen the impact of cancer on firefighters’ families and friends
      • “Pave the way for new health and safety measures to keep the next generation of firefighters safe
      • “Improve understanding of cancer risk among minority, female, and volunteer firefighters, as well as groups like wildland firefighters”

To develop comprehensive and ongoing  analyses of risks and illnesses, the NFR  encourages participation by all firefighters, structural and wildland, and all statuses — volunteer, on-call, seasonal, full-time, retired, disabled, with or without a cancer diagnosis.

While the images on the registry often focus on structural firefighters, the associated links include background health and cancer information for wildland firefighters and a web page focused on outdoor workers and smoke.

National Firefighter Registry

Bill Gabbert wrote many articles in Wildfire Today covering the genesis and progress toward the National Firefighter Registry (also referred to as the “cancer registry”). One article shared Kathleen Navarro’s “A Brief Look” at cancer and health risks for wildland firefighters, which notes an estimated 8-43% increased chance of lung cancer and a 16-30% increased risk of heart disease mortality among wildland firefighters. Gabbert died of cancer in January.

For agencies and organizations seeking to support enrollment, a communications portal offers a range of print and social media messages.

One suggestion when registering: gather up your experience records first. I completed the first three registration stages (the “profile” stage) in around 10 minutes and then took a break to collect some notes on seasons of service and types and amount of exposure. A registrant can step aside from the profile stage of the portal and continue later, but once you enter details of your fire experience in the “experience” stage of registration, you aren’t able to edit it.

Recording an accurate representation of work and fire experience is a core component of the registry, which seeks to create a database of fire experience, firefighter’s risk exposure and long-term health effects. This has proven a challenge for researchers examining the higher prevalence of cancer occurrence among firefighters.

This can be particularly challenging with wildland firefighters serving on seasonal assignments (and with seasonal exposure to many varieties and quantities of smoke and other potential fireline-related carcinogens). The registry includes questions that may assist in determining wildland smoke exposure, including a firefighter’s role in fire — such as hand crew, engine crew, aviation, etc.; firefighter or fire manager; and the duration and type of fires (wildfire vs. prescribed) that a firefighter responded to on average, by the specific positions held. The experience questionnaire includes most varieties of fire experience, including wildland-urban interface as compared to wildfires. The experience and personal demographic sections may take from 20-30 minutes to complete, longer if you’d had a variety of positions and fire experience in your career.

National Firefighter Registry - Stage 3 profile completed.
National Firefighter Registry – the Profile stages completed. Take a break and gather your exposure history before tackling the Experience Questionnaire.

The document below shares a step-by-step process. Note that the consent is in-depth, in part to ensure participants that their shared information will be kept confidential. Survey questions include general health and demographic questions, including a history of tobacco or alcohol use and workplace but non-fire exposure to potential carcinogens.

Once a firefighter is registered, an anonymized tracking system in state cancer registries will link a cancer diagnosis (if one occurs) to the last four digits of a social security number, which will then correlate the diagnosis with the NFR data that includes the firefighter’s experience and exposure. In some cases, NIOSH may connect with a registered firefighter to seek voluntary participation in additional research.

[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”How to signup for Firefighter Registry”]