Lightning, not equipment, was the cause of the 2010 forest fire that burned down 6,100 hectares of Crown land southeast of Vanderhoof, a B.C. Supreme Court judge says.
At the case heard in Vancouver last fall, the B.C. government sued Canadian Forest Products Ltd. and its subcontractor, Barlow Lake Logging Ltd., for causing the fire that occurred on June 18, 2010 at Cutblock 85B.
Logging in the area under a replaceable forest licence, the two companies defended the accusation and argued that the Province could have done more to fight the fire, countering with a claim for damages caused.
In a judgment on July 7, Justice Bruce Greyell stated there was no presented evidence of the feller buncher that was parked near the fire as the cause. The Province argued that the equipment is known to cause fires, but there was no smouldering debris by the engine and ministry investigators found no indication of it striking rock.
In defence, Canfor and Barlow said that lightning is as likely to cause a holdover fire, where it remains dormant until it breaks into flame. A fire behaviour modelling expert called by the Province agreed that lightning can cause a holdover fire.
In the evening of June 17, the day before the fire, various Canfor and Barlow employees testified that they saw heavy rain, thunder, and lightning in the area.
Cross-examined at trial, meteorologist Beverly Archibald said that Canada’s lightning detection networks showed several lightning strikes three to eight kilometres from the fire site during the evening of June 17.
However, she added that one of the networks rarely detects lightning strikes within one kilometre of its origin, and a ministry study of the 2009 fire season showed that many lightning strikes that caused fire in B.C. are undetected.
“From my experience, the conditions at Corkscrew during the late afternoon and early evening of June 18, 2010 were precisely the type of conditions that would support the discovery of a holdover fire,” Archibald stated in her expert opinion report prepared for Canfor and Barlow. “High [relative humidity] values and low temperature readings on those days could have easily allowed the ignition to remain dormant until more aggressive fire weather conditions developed over the area during the late afternoon and early evening of June 18, 2010.”
Negligence on either side?
The judge also ruled that Canfor is not liable to B.C. for breach of contract.
A one-hour fire watch after industrial activities, such as mechanical tree felling, was not conducted as required by the employee on site, but the Province did not prove that a fire watcher could have discovered the fire during that time.
“The actual place of origin of the fire has not been determined,” he stated. “Even had the fire started during the period of the fire watch, the actual place of flaming ignition may not have been in the area harvested by [the employee] but outside and perhaps considerably outside the site of the high risk activity the fire watcher was to watch and conduct patrols.”
However, Canfor did not prove that the Province departed from the basic firefighting principles at the event.
“ I find proper resources were available and were devoted to fight the fire on the evening of June 18, 2010,” he said. ”The Province responded promptly when it was notified by the spotter plane of the fire.”
He also stated that Canfor and Barlow’s description of the response as “minimal or no fire suppression by the [Province] ground resources during the evening and night of June 18 and delayed fire suppression actions with insufficient resources assigned on the morning of the 19” is hindsight and doesn’t reflect the efforts of the initial ministry teams in fire assessment and fighting.
B.C. owes a duty of care to Canfor and Barlow, the judge ruled.