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.