Wildfire conviction sends strong message: Investigator

By Taylor MacPherson
November 24, 2017 - 2:00pm

Ministry of Environment investigator said he hopes the recent conviction of a Hall Lake man for lighting several wildfires sends a strong message to the entire province.

Donald Halkett Jr. recently pleaded guilty to charges of mischief and failing to comply with a fire ban in a La Ronge courtroom. According to the Ministry of Environment, Halkett admitted to flicking lit wooden matches into the woods while walking down a rural trail outside of Hall Lake in July of 2015, which led to four small wildfires and forced firefighters away from several much larger blazes which were threatening other northern communities.

Halkett Jr. was handed a six-month conditional sentence including a nightly curfew and was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service. More significantly, he was ordered to pay $41,393 to cover the costs of fighting the fires, and $250 for contravening the fire ban.

Ministry of Environment Senior Investigator Ken Ness said he hopes the story sends a message to the public that intentionally lighting a wildfire has serious consequences.

“Anyone who lights a wildfire will be held accountable for all resulting damages and the firefighting costs, which can be significant,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Ness said the lengthy investigation involved numerous conservation officers, who quickly determined the fires were deliberately set. After extensive interviews with community members, Ness said investigating officers identified Halkett Jr. as a person of interest. In his confession, Ness said, the young man admitted to being angry at community members and intoxicated when he started the fires.

The two-year investigation was frustrating at times, Ness said, but hard work by investigating officers paid off in the end and resulted in Saskatchewan’s first conviction under the province’s new Wildfire Act.

“They were diligent and over time their diligence was rewarded,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about; finding the truth.”

Steve Roberts, executive director of Saskatchewan’s Wildfire Management Branch, said the fires started by Halkett Jr. were relatively small and quickly extinguished, but still required ground crews and a helicopter to be diverted from a much larger wildfire near La Ronge in order to ensure the community of Hall Lake was protected.

“Diverting resources to respond to human-caused wildfires can put communities and firefighters at risk, especially during extreme wildfire activity and burning conditions, as was the case in 2015,” Roberts said.

Although the deliberately-set fires did not damage the community, Roberts said one of them crept as close as 200 metres away before it was extinguished. The largest of the fires started by Halkett Jr. reached nearly a hectare in size, he said.

Like Ness, Roberts said he hopes the case serves as a cautionary tale for the public.

“The conviction sends a strong message,” he said. “Anyone who lights a wildfire can be held accountable for those damages and firefighting costs.”

 

Taylor.macpherson@jpbg.ca

On Twitter: @TMacPhersonNews

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