B.C. government considering tougher penalties for wildfire starters

The provincial government is considering stricter penalties for human-caused wildfires that could include...

Photo: B.C. Wildlife Management

The provincial government is considering stricter penalties for human-caused wildfires that could include impounding the vehicles of people caught tossing lit cigarettes out their windows.

Forests Minister Steve Thomson announced a review of existing punishments July 14 in the face of mounting wildfire damage across the province.

“There are some who suggest that you can’t legislate against stupidity,” he said. “But if exploring the idea of increasing fines or acting on ideas that mean more people will get the message, I think we should be prepared to have a look at it.”

Thomson tapped Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris, a former RCMP superintendent, to head the review.

Morris said he will look at a number of possible fixes including:

- higher fines;

- banning people from provincial parks and campsites for repeatedly violating fire prohibitions; and

- impounding the vehicles of people caught flicking lit cigarette butts out their windows.

“People don’t seem to be getting the message so we do need to have some harsh penalties out there,” Morris said.

Fines currently range from $115 for failing to report a fire to $173 for dropping, releasing or mishandling a burning substance to $345 for violating a campfire ban.

People can also face an administrative penalty of $10,000 or a fine of up to $100,000 and a year in jail, if convicted in court of breaking a fire ban.

In addition, people who cause or contribute to a wildfire could be forced to pay some or all of the costs of putting the fire out.

Thomson noted that a discarded cigarette triggered the 2003 McLure-Barriere wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of 3,800 people. A B.C. man was fined $3,000 for accidentally starting the fire.

“It just shows the magnitude of what can happen with that irresponsible activity,” Thomson said.

Morris acknowledged the difficulty with proving some of the offences, such as tossing a cigarette out a car window. “But if you’ve got a witness that takes a licence number down, for example, or somebody observes somebody throwing a cigarette out the window, that should stand the test of a trial or any kind of prosecution on that,” he said.

Thomson said the government also relies on experienced wildfire investigators, as well as technology that maps lightning strikes, to determine the cause of fires.

The B.C. Wildfire Service has spent more than $116 million responding to 1,086 fires in 2015 compared to 523 by this time last year. Of the fires to date, 375 were caused by humans.

There are currently 201 active wildfires in the province, including 14 that began Monday.

The fires have burned through 279,082 hectares compared to 46,000 hectares at this point last year.

A campfire ban remains in place for most of the province, although it was lifted Tuesday for Haida Gwaii and the fog zone, a two-kilometre wide band that runs south from Nordstrom Creek to Owen Point near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island.

“We’re heading into what is typically the driest part of the year, so the government is appealing to everyone to be careful out there and use common sense,” Thomson said.

Times Colonist