Decision Date: June 10, 2021
Panel: Robert Wickett, Cynthia Lu, Ian Miller
Keywords: Wildfire Act – ss. 5, 27; Wildfire Regulation – ss. 22(3), 22(4)(a); wildfire; contravention; escape; administrative penalty
Knighco Industries Ltd. (“Knighco”) appealed an administrative penalty issued by the District Manager (the “District Manager”), West Coast Region, Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (the “Ministry”). The penalty related to the escape of a permitted controlled burn, which caused a wildfire.
Knighco had hired a contractor to burn piles of debris left over after Knighco harvested timber in a cutblock. A few days after the contractor lit the debris piles, the BC Wildfire Service (“BCWS”) received a report of a wildfire in the area. The contractor did not have a fire suppression system at the site, and neither Knighco nor its contractor were onsite when the wildfire was reported. After Knighco became aware of the wildfire, it attempted to control the wildfire but was unsuccessful, and the BCWS began suppressing the fire. The BCWS determined that the wildfire originated in the cutlock. By the time the wildfire was extinguished, it had destroyed over 3,000 seedlings on the cutblock and had burned trees adjacent to the cutlock.
The District Manager found Knighco liable for the actions of its contractor in relation to the wildfire. The District Manager determined that Knighco contravened sections 5(1) and 5(2)(a) of the Wildfire Act (the “Act”) and sections 22(3) and 22(4)(a) of the Wildfire Regulation. The District Manager ordered Knighco to pay a penalty of $12,000.00 for the contraventions. In a separate decision, the District Manager ordered Knighco’s contractor to pay the government’s fire control costs of $16,745.06 and the cost of $2,122.80 for damage to Crown resources.
Knighco appealed the penalty, but not the findings of contravention. Knighco argued that the District Manager was biased against it, and the penalty was excessive.
The Commission found that Knighco tendered no evidence to support its allegation that the District Manager was, or could reasonably be seen to be, biased against Knighco. Although Knighco asserted that other licensees received lower penalties in similar circumstances, it provided no specific examples or other evidence to support this assertion. Knightco’s suspicion that it was treated differently than other licensees was insufficient to prove an allegation of bias.
The Commission then considered whether the $12,000 penalty was appropriate in the circumstances, based on factors listed in section 27(3) of the Act. The Commission found that the $12,000 penalty was appropriate. In particular, the Commission held that the gravity of the contraventions was serious. Although the contraventions were not deliberate, Knighco failed to take sufficient steps to ensure that its contractor knew and was committed to compliance with the legislation before undertaking the debris pile burn. Specifically, Knighco failed to: review the requirements of the legislation with the contractor; conduct an onsite pre-work discussion with the contractor; ensure that the contractor had the required firefighting tools and fire suppression system at the site; and, monitor the contractor’s work. Knighco’s “hands off” approach with its contractor fell far below the standard expected of an experienced licensee. Knighco demonstrated a serious lack of regard for the legislation’s requirements and the risk of a wildfire, which warranted a penalty reflecting significant deterrence despite the moderate magnitude of the wildfire.
The Commission also considered that the penalty was the only financial consequence to Knighco for the contraventions, aside from its own firefighting expenses, whereas in many other cases the licensee was also ordered to pay the government’s fire control costs. The Commission considered it appropriate to assess the entirety of the financial consequences imposed on Knighco, to deter it and other licensees from committing similar contraventions in the future.
Accordingly, the Commission confirmed the penalty and dismissed the appeal.