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B.C. court rules forestry company must pay $343,000 cost of 2016 wildfire suppression

Wildfire near Nazko came from debris pile contractor set on fire at a Tolko Industries cut block
Softwood lumber is pictured at Tolko Industries in Heffley Creek, B.C., Sunday, April, 1, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A British Columbia Supreme Court judge has upheld more than $343,000 in cost-recovery fines that were handed to a forestry company for starting a wildfire in 2016.

A decision posted Monday says the wildfire near Nazko, in central B.C., burned about four square kilometres after escaping from a debris pile that a contractor set on fire at a Tolko Industries cut block.

The court heard that four so-called holdover fires were reported by Tolko to the BC Wildfire Service for starting active fires in the spring of 2016.

The fires burned under the snow-covered ground for periods ranging from six weeks to five months after they were thought to have been put out, but the wildfire near Nazko was the only one that escaped the cut block.

Tolko initially won an appeal through the Forest Appeals Commission, which overturned the pay order saying the company was exempt under the Wildfire Regulation because it didn’t intend to start the fire and it found the blaze was a result of forestry activity.

However, Supreme Court Justice Michael Brundrett says in his decision that the commission made a mistake when it interpreted “fire” to mean “wildfire,” separating the intentional act of starting the burn pile from the wildfire that resulted from it.

“The language does not require the person to intend to start a wildfire that accidentally spreads from a wilfully lit controlled fire,” he says in his decision.

“If one were to limit the cost recovery scheme to wilfully caused wildfires only (e.g., cases of arson), and to exclude roadside debris pile fires deliberately lit by industry participants that accidentally result in wildfires, the resulting cost recovery scheme would be so marginal in scope as to have almost no practical application.”

The Supreme Court decision says in general, timber harvesting results in a significant amount of debris piled along forest roads for subsequent disposal by burning, usually in winter.

Occasionally, it says “holdover fires” occur when debris piles continue to smoulder underground after a debris pile fire appears to be put out.

Tolko burned about 65,000 debris piles in the 2015-16 harvesting season, the documents say.

Tolko was initially handed a $15,000 administrative penalty plus a cost recovery order that included more than $343,000 in firefighting costs under the Wildfire Act, before challenging the cost recovery portion.

However, Brundrett says the cost recovery scheme does not give a free pass to those engaged in debris pile burning who accidentally start wildfires.

“In fact, the scheme appears designed to ensure the opposite.”

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