Former Mayerthorpe mayor defends son accused of arson in CN fire

A former Mayerthorpe mayor says he remains supportive of his 19-year-old son, even after it was found he helped battle major fires he allegedly started in the Alberta town, including a massive one that destroyed the CN trestle bridge.

19-year-old Lawson Schalm helped extinguish the fires he allegedly set, fire chief says

Lawson Schalm, now 19, is pictured in an image from a Facebook page listed under his name. Schalm started working for the Mayerthorpe, Alta., fire department when he was 15, and now faces arson charges relating to numerous fires. (Supplied/Facebook)

A former Mayerthorpe mayor says he remains supportive of his firefighter son, who faces 18 counts of arson for a spree of major fires he allegedly started in the Alberta town. 

The charges against 19-year-old Lawson Schalm are related to numerous suspicious fires in the area that began on April 19, including a massive one that destroyed the CN trestle bridge.

On Sunday, Mayerthorpe fire Chief Randy Schroeder confirmed Schalm was one of the volunteer firefighters called to actively battle that fire, as well as four other fires during the course of the spree. 

"There's an unconditional love for my son," Albert Schalm said, his voice trembling. "No matter how this ends up, there will always be a dinner plate at my table for my son. He is always welcome in my home."

Albert Schalm said his son began working for the Mayerthorpe fire department when he was 15 years old and was considering a possible future with the department.

"We were shocked," he said. "He was planning out his future and where it would go from there, and obviously some of that will be on hold for a while."

Schalm is in custody and is scheduled to make his first court appearance in Stony Plain provincial court on Wednesday.

Fire department shocked, chief says

The CN bridge fire forced the evacuation of nearby schools and a trailer park with 38 mobile homes. Some Lac St. Anne County residents living nearby were also told to be ready to leave on one-hour notice.

Fire chief Schroeder said last week almost three dozen firefighters from four different fire departments in the area were called to help douse the flames, alongside agriculture and forestry services members, helicopters and a water bomber.

The loss of the bridge will impact the lumber and oil industries "extensively," Schroeder said.

He said the fire department is struggling to come to terms with the charges against one of their own. 

"We're certainly very shocked, bewildered, wounded and a little hurt on the discovery of this," he said. "The discovery that one of our own potentially lit 18 fires is definitely affecting our station, for sure."

Schroeder and Mayerthorpe Mayor Kate Patrick said in a news release that members of the fire department will undergo "critical incident stress debriefing," and that individual counselling will be available to all members over word of the charges.

Schroeder said the department is still functioning normally and providing service as usual for the community, and also extending their support to the Schalm family. 

"We understand that this has got to be a tremendously trying time for his family members," he said. 

'There will always be a dinner plate at my table for my son'

Albert Schalm said he hasn't yet been able to speak with his son, but that the community has been supportive of the family. 

Schalm was mayor of Mayerthorpe in 2005, when four RCMP officers were shot and killed near the town.

This is a community that I've poured my heart and soul into. Moving this community forward, that's still going to continue.- Albert Schalm, father of accused in Mayerthorpe, Alta., arsons

"We're thankful that this is over for the community, and for ourselves and for everybody, and that nobody got hurt, there were no serious injuries. You have to be really thankful for that.

"This is a community that I've poured my heart and soul into. Moving this community forward, that's still going to continue."

Schalm's son was expected to graduate high school in two months, and the family is now focusing on their son's future, Schalm said.

Despite what he calls a "dark period," he said his family's focus will remain on his son, and their Christian faith.

"We refuse to be devastated by this. I refuse to throw my son under the bus. I'm not that kind of dad. My goal is to get him back on the road, get his future going again."

With files from The Canadian Press