British Columbia

Small B.C. logging contractor fights $15M wildfire bill

A tiny B.C. logging contractor is fighting a whopping $15-million bill from the province to cover the cost of fighting a wildfire that ripped through the Peace region in 2016.

Jon Sarver claims province failed to consider possibility that arson might have caused 2016 blaze

The 15,000-hectare fire that ripped through the Peace region in April 2016 closed highways and caused evacuation orders. Jon Sarver has been ordered to foot the $15-million bill. (Paul Walter)

A tiny B.C. logging contractor is fighting a whopping $15-million bill from the province to cover the cost of fighting a wildfire that ripped through the Peace region in 2016.

J. Sarver Trucking Ltd. — a company essentially made up of owner Jon Sarver — was handed the tab in April 2019, but details of the case are only emerging now because of an interim decision related to an appeal.

The bill consists of $12 million for firefighting costs, $3.7 million for damage to Crown timber and a $20,000 administrative penalty for allegedly causing the blaze in the first place.

Sarver's lawyer said the magnitude of the order is unprecedented. 

And it would ruin the 100 Mile House man.

"I have never seen a claim of this size or anything close to it, quite frankly. It is a very large claim," said Greg Tucker, the head of Owen Bird's insurance group.

"Obviously, it is a somewhat stunning thing to receive, essentially, a bill for $15 million. So, as you can imagine, Mr. Sarver has had some sleepless nights over this."

Firefighters, helicopters, highway closures

Sarver is appealing the order through the Forest Appeals Commission on the grounds the Ministry of Forests failed to adequately consider the possibility arson might have caused the fire, which ultimately grew to 15,739 hectares.

The ministry wouldn't comment on the case while it's before the commission, but according to the figures provided by the ministry, the largest wildfire cost levy in B.C. history against a company is $2.25 million for a fire in 2010.

The largest levy against a person was against Robert Unger for $861,000 for the 2009 fire season.

The commission ordered the ministry this week to divulge unredacted versions of four reports into wildfires that occurred nearby at the time. Sarver believes they will help him make his case.

Burned trees in an area where high winds and heat whipped the Beatton Road fire into a frenzy. (Brett Hyde/CBC)

The contractor held a timber sale licence for the block of land where the so-called Beatton Airport Road fire started at the beginning of April 2016.

He obtained a registration number to burn piles of debris left through the logging process, but the registration expired in February.

On April 7, 2016, B.C. Timber Sales told Sarver there were unburned piles on his block. He got a new burn registration number that day and confirmed that he burned the remaining piles on April 8.

The B.C. Wildlife Service became aware of a potential wildfire in the area 10 days later.

The fire raged on for the next month, causing evacuation orders and closing the Alaska Highway. Hundreds of firefighters were involved, along with helicopters, heavy equipment and water tankers. 

Hourly wages alone cost $2.4 million and helicopter fuel and flight costs were billed at $2.9 million.

'Not worth stopping by'

According to a copy of the recovery order, Kamloops Fire Centre deputy manager Cliff Chapman concluded that Sarver didn't take reasonable steps to ensure fuel breaks were established around his burn piles and failed to monitor the burn piles to ensure the fire was contained.

The report said Sarver claimed there was a "good four inches" of snow on the ground when he left the burn piles.

"I went by there the next morning to go to work and was going to stop in and thought, 'You know what, it's raining and snowing so hard it's not worth stopping by," Sarver is quoted as telling a natural resources officer in a telephone interview.

J. Sarver Trucking is a company that basically consists of owner Jon Sarver. He now faces a $15-million bill for costs associated with fighting a fire that ravaged the Peace region in April 2016. (Facebook/J Sarver)

But Chapman found Sarver failed to do his due diligence.

"I would have expected him to return to the open fires the following day or in the subsequent days closer to the date of the discovery of [the wildfire] as the weather began warming and drying," he wrote.

"J. Sarver did not take sufficient steps to reasonably ensure that the piles would not escape the intended burn area."

Timber harvesting?

The fire was alleged to be a "holdover fire" — a fire that appears to be out but is in fact burning underground. Tucker said the area was subject to extremely unusual weather at the time, with high winds that caused a number of fires to reignite.

In challenging the order for costs, Sarver pointed to suspicions arson was involved in other blazes in the area and to a threat allegedly made against him by the brother of the owner of an adjacent lot.

The province had objected to the release of the unredacted reports on other fires on the grounds that people might be reluctant to report wildfires if they thought they might later be contacted in relation to litigation.

But the appeals commission rejected that argument.

Sarver also claims he was carrying out activities considered "timber harvesting" at the time the blaze began, which he said should protect him under the terms of the Wildfire Act.

"What is at issue here is the question of whether somebody is basically doing a controlled burn, post-harvesting under these circumstances, whether or not that is a part of timber harvesting," said Tucker.

"We believe that it is and the government said that it is not."

Sarver is also questioning the quantum of the order.

Bottom line, Tucker said Sarver, who has no similar contraventions in 35 years of working in environmentally sensitive areas, wasn't found to have done anything malicious or intentional.

"That's the strongest that can be said in terms of what Sarver is claimed to have done," Tucker said.

"And the government wants $15 million."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.

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