British Columbia

One of B.C.'s most destructive wildfires was most likely caused by a smoker, investigations find

One of the most destructive wildfires in B.C. history was most likely caused by a person who had been smoking, the B.C. Wildfire Service revealed Monday, though officials say there is not enough evidence to lay charges.

Elephant Hill inferno was the largest in B.C.'s 2017 wildfire season, scorching 1,920 sq. km

The Elephant Hill wildfire destroyed much of the area around Pressy Lake, northeast of Cache Creek, B.C., during the summer of 2017. (Submitted)

One of the most destructive wildfires in B.C. history was most likely caused by a person who had been smoking, the province has revealed, though officials say there is not enough evidence to lay charges.

The B.C. Wildfire Service found the Elephant Hill wildfire was ignited by discarded "smoking materials," such as cigarettes, matches or marijuana, according to a statement Monday. The fire broke out near Ashcroft, B.C., on July 6, 2017.

A statement Monday said investigators have not been able to prosecute the person responsible.

"The B.C. Wildfire Service and RCMP investigations did not uncover sufficient evidence to identify the person," the statement read.

"Therefore, it was not possible to lay charges or pursue cost recovery for damages caused by this fire."

RCMP and members of Land Task Force Pacific at an observation and reporting point near Clinton, B.C., as part of the Elephant Hill wildfire crosses a ridge on Aug. 8, 2017. (Master Cpl. Malcolm Byers/Wainwright Garrison Imaging)

The province said Monday both investigations into the fire are now over and "no further action" will be taken.

The Elephant Hill fire was the largest in B.C. during the record-breaking wildfire season in 2017. It burned nearly 1,920 square kilometres of land, ravaging the Ashcroft, Boston Flats, Loon Lake and Pressy Lake areas of the B.C. Interior.

The fire levelled more than 120 homes over 76 days. Thousands were forced from their homes, including the entire community of Cache Creek.

Investigators with the B.C. Wildfire Service knew what had caused the fire by the fall of 2017, according to Monday's statement, but couldn't reveal their findings to the public as the RCMP investigation was still active.

The service said specialists settled on smoking as the likely cause of the fire by ruling out the other possibilities, such as lightning, arson or an unattended campfire.

"It's really disappointing ... it's a reminder to everyone to, please, be careful," said Kyla Fraser, fire information officer with the wildfire service, of the news the fire was human-caused.

RCMP announced in January 2018 that the fire was caused by humans, and asked the public for any tips that might help with their investigation.

The force recommended charges to the Crown in relation to its investigation last September, but details around the RCMP's findings were not released while charges were under consideration.

The Crown did not approve the charges. A statement sent to CBC News on Monday said prosecutors did not believe the evidence was enough to create a substantial likelihood of conviction.

'A punch in the gut'

Lorne Smith's home was one of 33 that were lost in the Elephant Hill wildfire in 2017. He told Radio West host Sarah Penton he was not surprised to learn the fire was caused by someone smoking. 

"It was kind of a punch in the gut, but not a surprise," he said. "It's not going to change anything from where we're at now."

Lorne Smith and his wife lost their Pressy Lake home and most of their belongings in the Elephant Hill wildfire in 2017. (Lorne Smith)

He was also unsurprised to find out there would be no charges laid, but he wishes more details about the fire that destroyed his home were available. 

"I would give an arm and a leg to find out what really happened, right from the start," he said.

Smith and his wife, Cheryl Merriman, rebuilt their home in Pressy Lake, and he said they're now just trying to get on with their lives. 

"The things that we went through and saw, had to endure, were pretty rough," he said. 

 

With files from Jenifer Norwell and Radio West

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