Sask. man 'was angry' when he flicked lit matches into grass during 2015 wildfires, says official

While wildfires were ravaging parts of northern Saskatchewan and Alberta back in 2015, a Hall Lake man flicked lit matches into the forest, starting several more fires.

Donald Halkett Jr. lit several fires on outskirts of Hall Lake while walking along trail

A fire truck sprays water to douse a wildfire in the La Ronge, Sask., area, on July 4, 2015. (Saskatchewan Ministry of Government Relations)

While wildfires were ravaging parts of northern Saskatchewan and Alberta in the summer of 2015, a Hall Lake man was flicking lit matches into the forest, starting several more fires. 

Now, 22-year-old Donald Halkett Jr. has to reach deep into his wallet and pay more than $41,000 after being convicted of mischief.

"He was angry; it was revenge," according to Ken Ness, a senior investigator with Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment.

"He was mad — very angry at the time — and intoxicated. And I believe that played a major role in his judgment for lighting the fires on that day." 

The incidents occurred on July 4, 2015. Firefighters responded to reported wildfires in Hall Lake, which is located about 100 kilometres west of La Ronge. The fires were quickly contained.

"If we had not been able to contain them early [we] would have had a fire right on the edge of Hall Lake," Steve Roberts, executive director of wildfire management with the province, said Thursday.

Roberts said ground crews and a helicopter were diverted from other firefighting efforts to extinguish the blazes.

Investigators determined the fires had been deliberately set in four separate areas along a trail on the outskirts of the community.

Ness said community members provided conservation officers with information that led them to identify Halkett as a suspect early on. 

However, he said because Halkett was alone when he lit the fires, it took time for conservation officers to build a case.

A water bomber drops fire retardant on a wildfire in the La Ronge, Sask., area on July 1, 2015. (Wildfire Branch/Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment/Canadian Press)

Community members helped investigation

"In the months that followed, the conservation officers from La Ronge regularly visited the community of Hall Lake and, over the months, received bits and pieces of information from a variety of sources until we had enough grounds to question Mr. Halkett," he said.

"It's sometimes frustrating that investigations like this take a lot of time and in this case, that's what happened. It just took a lot of time."

After questioning him, he confessed in December 2016 to lighting the fires. 

He was fined $250 for starting a fire while there was a fire ban, plus a $100 surcharge and ordered to pay $41,392.83 in restitution for the costs of fighting the blazes. 

Halkett also recently received a six month conditional sentence which prohibited him from consuming or possessing alcohol, and requires him to abide by a curfew and do 100 hours of community service. 

Sending a message

"The conviction sends a strong message that anyone who lights a wildfire can be held accountable for those damages and firefighting costs and that diverting resources to respond to human-caused wildfires can put communities and firefighters at risk," Roberts said. 

More than 13,000 people were displaced in 2015 as communities were evacuated due to fires. Evacuees were transported south to cities such as Prince Albert, North Battleford and Saskatoon.

At one point, the military was brought in to assist fire crews in battling the fires.