Southeastern N.B. had a rash of fires. Officials know many of them were no accident
Chez Camille is one of a number of businesses lost to fire between 2019 and 2022
Brad Powers raced from Moncton to Cap-Pelé in the middle of the night after learning his restaurant was on fire last April, hoping he would find something salvageable.
Chez Camille stood for more than 50 years serving tourists and locals in the village, located around 50 kilometres northeast of Moncton near the Northumberland Strait.
Powers had poured everything he had into the restaurant, well known for its fried clams. The fire destroyed everything but the iconic sign.
"The windows were all out of the building, the whole roof was on fire, the whole dairy bar was completely gone," Powers said.
Powers's restaurant was one of more than 25 in a string of fires in the now-amalgamated municipality of Cap-Acadie, according to numbers gathered by the province's Office of the Fire Marshal.
The restaurant fire was also one of at least 15 that were considered by authorities to be suspicious.
According to a briefing note prepared by the fire marshal, obtained through a right to information and protection of privacy request, 57 per cent the fires in the region, between 2019 and 2022, were considered to be "incendiary," compared to a provincial average of 35 per cent.
When talking about fires, the fire marshal uses the term incendiary, rather than arson.
The briefing note describes incendiary fires as "one deliberately ignited under circumstances in which the person knows that the fire should not be ignited."
Michael Lewis, fire marshal, distinguishes this term from arson, which is defined "as intentionally or recklessly causing damage by fire or explosion to property," according to Canada's Criminal Code.
"There's things that wouldn't meet the threshold for arson, but would still be considered incendiary fire," Lewis said in an interview.
"I'm not looking for criminal intent. I'm trying to find an unbiased version of what occurred ... What were the cause and circumstances that led [to the fire].
"If my information from a policing perspective, meets the threshold for criminal conviction or criminal case, they can take that and proceed with it that way."
The briefing note, along with other records provided through access to information, offers a behind-the-scenes view inside the investigation and response to the rash of fires.
Jerry can in hand
Two days before Chez Camille burned, an employee at the restaurant noticed siding on the building had melted and a jug that smelled of gasoline was nearby, according to a report from the fire marshal. Powers installed cameras the next day.
"It's just disheartening why anybody would do it to me," Powers said. "Like I wouldn't go out of my way to hurt anybody. It just doesn't make sense again why they would do it."
Powers said he spent the better part of a year trying to understand a possible motive.
"We're at the point now where I don't want to figure it out anymore," he said. "I'm just going to be happy to rebuild, happy to get open and have another great season."
5 fires in 3 weeks
While Chez Camille will be back in business in the coming months, several businesses are gone for good.
This includes smokehouses which were burned under suspicious circumstances in 2021. In August of that year within a span of three weeks, three fish processing plants were burned, along with a garage and a truck.
The fish plants included two buildings owned by Botsford Fisheries and one by M&M Cormier Fisheries in Petit-Cap, near Cap-Pelé. Both Botsford buildings hadn't been in use for some time before the fires, according to the fire marshal's reports.
All the fish plants were considered total losses with only one of the three rebuilt.
Another Cap-Pelé restaurant — the Bel Air — had at least three fires before closing its doors permanently.
The building was in the middle of being rebuilt from a fire in May 2019 when it was targeted again in November of that year. Both were considered deliberately set with video footage showing a criminal act being committed in the last fire, records from the fire marshal show.
As the number of fires grew, the fire marshal's office increased its presence in the region, investigating nearly every fire. The office started sending at least two investigators to every call.
"As soon as we've identified that there's a statistical increase or number of incendiary fires greater than the provincial average, we tweak our approach a little bit just to ... make sure that we're leaving no stone unturned and that we're showing a strong presence in the area," Lewis said.
The fires also made great demands on small fire departments in the region. Cap-Pelé's fire department — made up entirely of volunteer firefighters — responded to most of these fires.
"it's challenging for [our volunteer firefighters]," Lewis said. "These are the communities they live in. And like I said, these are economic drivers for the community. So whether it's accidental or incendiary, the impact is the same."
Other fires in the area include Saint-Timothée Catholic church in Shemogue and Indian Point Lighthouse in Cape Tormentine. Both were total losses.
After several suspicious fires, several local politicians called a meeting in May 2022 with area leaders, stakeholders, the RCMP and the fire marshal.
The meeting discussed increased patrolling, and added business security for the region, according to meeting minutes obtained through a right to information request. They also discussed tearing down buildings that had previously been targeted by fire.
A lot of people were devastated.- Brad Powers, owner of Chez Camille
Months after that meeting, a spokesperson for the RCMP told CBC the police force is still investigating the fires, but wouldn't comment on the possibility of any links between the fires to protect "ongoing investigations."
One person faces charges in connection with the fire at Saint-Timothée Catholic church and has pleaded not guilty and return to court in April.
There's no indication in the records that anyone is facing charges in connection with any other fires.
Powers has been struck by the support his restaurant has gotten since the fire.
"A lot of people were devastated," he said.
After the fire, Powers said people would come by to see the place, "elderly people, older people that were sitting in the car crying. It's a staple for the community here."
It wasn't just community spaces taken away. It was jobs, too.
More than 20 jobs were lost when the fish plants burned down in August of 2021, according to the Cap-Acadie Chamber of Commerce. Others lost their job when Bel Air Take Out burned down, and Powers hired some of those people at Chez Camille.
Powers said he intends to bring back as many of his former staff as he can when he reopens later this year.
In the meantime, he ran a food truck last summer to keep some of his employees working and to keep the restaurant's presence in the community.
"I think if we would have missed a year, it would have made it seem more like we were gone," he said.
Ten months after the fire that destroyed his restaurant, the new Chez Camille is starting to take shape. Powers said his new restaurant will be bigger than the old one, with more seating.
But as he rebuilds from scratch, he is concerned his business could be targeted again.
"I'm a little worried, I won't lie, about it happening again like they did with Bel Air, because Bel Air had it so that it was almost open, and they burn it right to the ground," Powers said.
"But I'm not going to live in fear. We're going to live as if it happened, it shouldn't have happened and live like it's not going to happen again."