B.C. Landowner Ordered to Pay $450K for Wildfire After Arson Claim Dismissed

It took B.C. Wildfire Service crews two weeks to extinguish a wildfire started by a holdover from Clarke Matthiesen's 2019 open burn. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

In a significant ruling last week, the Forest Appeals Commission has ordered Clarke Matthiesen, a landowner in British Columbia’s Cariboo region, to pay approximately $450,000 for a wildfire ignited in April 2019. The commission dismissed Matthiesen’s claim that arson by his neighbours’ grandson was the cause, labelling his theory as “both unproven and unlikely.”

James Carwana, the panel chair, stated that evidence robustly supported the conclusion that the wildfire resulted from a holdover fire from an improperly extinguished 224-square-metre open burn. Carwana emphasized, “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.”

A firefighter works to extinguish the Highland Fire, a wildfire near Aguanga, California, October 31, 2023. This image shows the skies over the northeast Pacific Ocean streaked with clouds that form around the particles in ship exhaust. (MODIS/NASA)

The wildfire, which occurred in a remote area about 150 kilometres west of Quesnel, B.C., raged for two weeks before firefighters managed to extinguish it. The financial repercussions for Matthiesen are substantial, including $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.

A critical point in the commission’s findings was Matthiesen’s failure to raise his arson theory with any officials or investigators in the four years preceding his appeal. Despite claims that the neighbours’ grandson had threatened to burn Matthiesen’s home “to the ground” four months before the wildfire, no evidence indicated he was in the area at the time of the fire, and investigators found no signs of arson.

Furthermore, the commission pointed out Matthiesen’s noncompliance with regulations while conducting the burn. The landowner had started a large burn pile in February 2019 to dispose of debris, not realizing its classification as a Category 3 open fire, which necessitates a burn registration number and specific safety measures. Despite passing by the burn site several times and not noticing any smoke or feeling heat, Matthiesen admitted to not pulling the pile apart or dousing it with water, crucial steps in preventing holdover fires.