Burn

Everyone, like the proverbial moth, is pulled to the flames. The licking fire is often enthralling and mysterious, but we can only enjoy its satisfying glow when it is under some form of control. As the western part of this country burns without restraint, the sometimes comforting flames are now satanic; on the move and destroying all things past and present in its path. The sound comes first, then the whirling winds, and finally the advancing ox blood coloured inferno comes into view. 

Even those some distance away in the remote towns and villages are part of this theatre of fire, wholly engulfed by smoke, black strings of soot dangling in the air and falling lazily at ones feet. Thousands of kilometres away the sunsets are tainted, the smoke having migrated across the country making the sun take on an orangish hue, the colour of our often imagined doomsday.

This is mother nature in one of its dazzling incarnations. But, this is not new. It happens regularly in this part of the world, some say with more regularity, because of climate change. The last time it moved with such all-encompassing destruction was in 2017. 

Some of those fires is the coming together of dry, parched ground being struck many times over by lightning; thunder announcing the attack, mother nature venting.

Other fires are not manifestations of nature or climate change, they are our own doing.  

Negligent humans often at the root of the resulting financial and personal devastation. Flung cigarettes from car windows, sparks from work tools sparking in dry tinder, or the insufficiently doused campfire– all are “human” causes. 

The darkest of these human possibilities and the subject of this blog is that human being who feels some internal need to start his or her own fire. The criminal arsonist who lives amongst us.

Between 2016 and 2020 according to the Congressional research service in the United States 88% of wildfires are “human” caused.

The Province of British Columbia estimates that only 40% of wildfires in this Province are “human-caused”. This is a statistical difference for which there is no explanation, but may lie in the nature of the survey. Recently there were about 300 firs burning in British Columbia, so about 120 of those fires, going by the statistics of the Provincial government are in all probability “human” caused.  

Negligent behaviour aside, a portion of that 120 will be the result of the deliberate starting of fires, an arsonist at work. We can only guess at the actual number of arsons due to the nature and style of the government reporting and often because those that investigate these fires can not confirm the root cause. 

On their web site the British Columbia government laments that investigations of those fires “often take time to complete and can be very complex”; that the investigations themselves may be carried out by “one or more agencies, including the B.C. Wildfire Service, the Compliance and Enforcement Branch, the RCMP or other law enforcement agencies, and some investigations may be cross-jurisdictional”. Without a single investigatory unit, maybe therein lies part of the problem. 

Arson should not be considered a small problem. By way of comparison, in 2019 there were 678 homicides in Canada while there were 8,190 arsons. In 2014 the national rate of arsons was 23.87 per 100,000 population. Nunavut had the lowest overall total of arsons, however, the highest rate of arson in the country, three times the national rate —at 87.47 per 100,000.  

From 2010-2014 there were 38,844 fire incidents in Canada, 19,062 structural fires while 5,071 were “outdoor fires”.

So it behooves us to ask where are the resulting arson related criminal charges? What is the status of all or any investigations? Who is conducting them? Who are these arsonists? 

Psychologist Joel Dvoskia Phd. states that “the truth is, very little is known about arsonists because so few arsons are solved”. He goes on to say that when they are solved “it is because the arsonist can’t keep his mouth shut”.  When asked to analyze the California wildfires where 600,000 hectares burned and 2,000 homes were lost, and where some of the root causes pertained to arson, the Dr. says that often the “most common reason is profit” but in that case “anger is the more likely explanation”.

In 1987 the FBI studied and tried to create a profile of the typical arsonist. What they discovered in reviewing hundreds of cases was that in terms of “behavioural IQ” the typical arsonist had a mental of IQ of between 70 and 90. Seventy of course is the top level for people who are considered mentally “challenged” or deficient. 90% of all arsonists are caucasian males (as if us white males needed any more listed deficiencies—we also have a claim on serial killers). In 2012 the FBI found that 73.8% of arsonists were male. 

Half of all the arsonists profiled were under the age of 18, and the other half were most likely to be in their 20’s. These future criminals were unsurprisingly often neglected as children and had a “history of abuse and humiliation”. 

In terms of the Criminal Code and the law in this country, arson is covered in Section 433 which defines arson— and it also gets honourable mention in the murder section 230, where arson is named as a possible lead in to the charge of murder. 

When one examines this definition of arson, one discovers one of the other possible reasons that the charges for it are minimal. It states that for a charge of arson there must be a “disregard for human life” and a charge of arson is when “any person intentionally or recklessly causes damage by fire”. The operable word in the latter explanation and the one that any defence lawyer will seize upon is “recklessly”. What is “reckless” ? Recently there was a report of a car travelling down the highway pulling a broken muffler and sparking flames enroute. Is this reckless?  If one could assume that the typical arsonist is below average intelligence, proving intent may in of itself be difficult. Undefined words such as these allows lawyers to go down the rabbit hole into that subterranean world where they work and thrive. 

It is possible to charge for an arson which has been created by a “marked departure from the standard of care”. This carries a maximum sentence of five years. Again, try and define “marked”. 

When you do see criminal charges of arson, as few and far between as they are, it is often the mental health act and the nature of the act forms part of a deeper psychological problem which is very much in evidence. Here are some examples. 

The Powerview RCMP responded to a fire on Hwy 11 on Sagkeeng First Nation where a 44 year old male, Quinton Courchene tried to burn a house down with two individuals inside. He was waiting at the scene of the fire when the police arrived. 

In July of this year in West Kelowna a 36 year old male was arrested after being located in the area for setting a series of fires. The local public became enraged when a local Judge released the male back into the Glenrosa neighbourhood shortly after his arrest.  

In Port Alberni the police arrested a female who was setting fires in the city parks. 

A woman in Bonnyville Alberta was charged with 32 counts of arson after a spree of setting fires in the area. In this case there is an abundance of mental health issues. 

In June of this year the Wetaskwin RCMP arrested three males: Linden Buffalo, Jake Green and Donovan Lightning, all were charged with murder and arson after the remains of Clifford Stauffer was found inside a structure that was burned to the ground. 

In checking the literature for the last ten years in terms of court cases and case law emanating from arson charges– none of those cited were found for the lighting and starting of wildfires. 

In consideration of all this clear arson activity, should one assume that the RCMP has a dedicated arson investigation unit? Unfortunately, like many specialized investigative demands,whether it be cyber crime or fraud, once again the RCMP seems to be playing the under-funded second fiddle, often reliant on other agencies to lead the way. 

If you needed further evidence of the haphazard approach the Mounties take to arson investigation, consider the fact that this writer was once considered one of the “arson” investigators for the Surrey RCMP. This was not a dedicated unit, it was just a few of Serious Crime officers who were to work arson cases off the side of their desk. The qualifications needed were two Arson level I and II courses; one of two weeks, the other of three weeks. No experience necessary. If you could type the word “accelerant” you likely passed the test. 

Arson investigation, even more so than homicide or other serious crimes is often  heavily reliant on “good old fashion police work”. It inevitably needs a witness. Forensic evidence is needed to prove that the fire was “started”; rags in gas, matches found at scene or some other difficult to find substance, but once that was achieved, little or no definitive evidence of who may have started the fire would be found through the use of forensic science. Fire is a magnificent eliminator of physical evidence, hence the reason that gangsters burn the car or getaway vehicle often with the weapons inside. 

One would hope and think that repetitive years of extensive wildfires would elicit further investigative resources for a serious crime such as arson. That does not seem to be the case. Granted the under resourcing of many departments is at an all time high. (You may be interested to know that currently the Hwy patrol units in the Lower Mainland do not have enough resources to attend accidents now, and are asking the local detachments to attend those on the freeways—normally their mandate.) This writer has learned from more than one source that the RCMP was quietly dreading a season of wildfires due to this drastic understaffing. Just covering the evacuation areas, let alone fire investigations, has become as one officer stated a “shit show”. 

A new wildfire started as I write this on the Osoyoos Reserve in British Columbia and is now threatening the surrounding area and leading to several evacuations. No one is reporting the cause of the fire.

Two lives were lost in Lytton, British Columbian but the authorities are saying very little about the cause other than it was “likely caused by human activity”.

If that was not enough, Catholic churches are burning around the country– in Morinville, Calgary and  Edmonton Alberta; Penticton, British Columbian and Nova Scotia. The motive seems clear. It is just as clear that there are likely numerous individuals who know of the suspects but are fearful of being outed by their own community.

This lack of investigational willpower and resources is clearly Nero fiddling while Rome burns. In the meantime, helicopters will keep buzzing the lakes, dragging their long lined buckets, seemingly making very little progress. So, just maybe it’s time to start asking a few questions, rather than year after year falling to our knees and praying for rain. 

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Commons by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Some Rights Reserved

Time to reduce the number of firefighters?

Each day in downtown Vancouver and other municipalities in B.C, fire crews scream up and down the streets; gargantuan vehicles blasting air horns and sirens, reverberating off every nearby building.  However, in all likelihood they are not heading to a fire. Actually there is a 70 per cent chance they are going to a medical call. How did we get to this state of confusion, where the fire department is taking ambulance calls?

The cost of these daily and nightly  sojourns,  with million dollar fire trucks,  four or five fire personnel usually in tow, seems at the very least to be a misappropriation of resources. Most times they are going to a traffic accident, or to a downed individual suffering from too much alcohol, or too many drugs. They are of course usually joined by other fire vehicles, and maybe a supervisors vehicle for good measure. Upon arrival, they proceed to block multiple lanes of traffic, parking their vehicles and placing their traffic cones at 45 degrees, in different directions. Invariably, an ambulance will then attend as well.

The victims of an overdose or other medical issue is often dwarfed by the numbers of personnel and the towering vehicles parked in every direction. The fire personnel once relieved by the ambulance, often stand around, conversing with their fellow workers, seemingly unaware and unconcerned of the ensuing traffic jams, and usually in no apparent hurry to move on. The scene seems incongruous.

This  is not a firefighters traditional mandate and now the use of firefighters to answer medical calls is beginning to garner attention in many financially strapped municipalities in the U.S.  Even, in Canada, places like Toronto are re-assessing this perversion of the way these resources are used and shared with the traditional emergency health services community. They are quickly realizing that this abuse of scarce monetary resources needs to be addressed, that this is not a cost-effective way to use the fire departments.

In  Vancouver, there are currently 20 Fire Halls, with a total of about 800 employees. By their own statistics 70% of their calls are now medical calls to individuals or to car accidents.  How is that if fire calls have been declining to such a large degree, why are we not slowing down the growth of the fire department? It could be argued that we now need only 30% of what was needed many years ago.

Declining fire calls has led to the fire department, needing to justify itself in terms of resources, branching out into other territory. The route of least resistance was to grow toward was the medical call, or the call for rescue services.

So they have gradually embarked into other areas with developments like the “jaws of life” which gives them reasons to attend motor vehicle accidents, or carrying defibrillators, and training their staff to a higher level of medical expertise, which allows them to take medical calls. Coincidentally while fire calls were declining the Fire Department changed its name to the more expansive “Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

The fire department during this current Fentanyl crisis is using this as an opportunity to talk about their over growing workload, no time to train, complaining of “burnout”, even asking for further resources. One article extolled the need for an officer dedicated to dealing with PTSD for these over-worked fire personnel.

There is little dispute that medical calls are keeping some stations busy. At Firehall #2 in Vancouver,  in the heart of the downtown Eastside, monthly calls have doubled in the last four years, and now amount to sometimes 20 calls per day on a 10 hour shift, or 30 calls per 14 hour night shift.

Certain halls are busy with these medical calls, but there are also many sleepy fire halls in the region. Fire halls in West Vancouver for instance would be hard pressed to complain about being over worked. I spoke with one West Van fireman who in 27 years had never been to a “structural fire”, although had been to many accidents and medical calls.

And these fire personnel are not cheap.

In an article in the Georgia Strait who obtained FOI information from the City of Vancouver with reference to fire department salaries they learned:

In 2013 Vancouver’s Fire Chief was the highest paid employee in the city with a salary of $347,762. (but was expected to decrease in 2014). There were approximately 125 fire personnel working under him that were making over $100,000.00 in 2013.

http://www.straight.com/blogra/729806/why-do-so-many-vancouver-firefighters-make-six-figures-and-other-questions-raised-city-salaries

It should be noted that the overtime issue in B.C. runs across all emergency personnel lines, and is a singular problem in police services, paramedics and fire services. Paramedics, firefighters and police in B.C. are thanks to overtime, scooping up salaries well in excess of $100,000.00.

There is increasing attention being paid to the fact that modern equipment and new building materials is reducing the number of fires, and the costs of these fire departments are reaching astronomical levels.

Arbitrations are also keeping fire salaries high for one of the most under-worked professions. Often those salaries are in excess of the increases seen in other public sector jobs.

In smaller cities the Fire Department budget often amounts to a quarter of the overall budget.

Fire fighting has become a very desirable job, and firefighters rarely leave. Hundreds of applications are received every year for the few openings that come up.

Working conditions are good. Many firefighters having a second job because of the amount of downtime, and often have the luxury of sleeping during their night shifts. Twenty-four hour shifting is being used in some areas, or is often being pushed for by fire personnel. From a common sense perspective it seems illogical to be able to work a “24” hour shift, but of course it is possible in firefighting because of the extraordinary amount of downtime. They are often filling their downtime by preparing meals, working out, and polishing and servicing equipment. It is not uncommon to find them cruising in their big rigs and shopping for groceries or on a “patrol”through Kits beach.

In Toronto, in 2012, the city changed the protocols to send ambulances rather than firefighters to over 50 different types of medical emergencies. The next year the City staff recommended closing four halls and cutting 84 fire fighter jobs. While at the same time they hired an additional 56 paramedics who make a lesser salary, with an average of $65,000 in Canada.

A paramedic salary is lower than the average firefighter, as firefighters are designated as essential services in this Province, upping the ante in terms of salary bargaining.

Paramedics across Canada make between 65-$90,000. Ambulance vehicles run around $300,000 whereas fire trucks start about the same price and the larger trucks easily go over $1million.

Why this is not being done in British Columbia can partly be explained by the fact that there are two very different bureaucracies at work here. The city pays the Fire Personnel, while the Province pays the Paramedics. The two governments need to come together to work out a coherent untangling of mandates, and a cost sharing or savings sharing formula that is applied equitably. You would be increasing the direct costs to the Province but saving costs for the taxpayers of Vancouver. Some put back may be required from the City to the Province.

In November 2016 the BC Government put in another $5 million to the paramedics due to the Fentanyl crisis. However, if they truly want to make a difference and potentially save monies, we need to reduce the number of firefighters and close some of the halls, while at the same time increasing increase the number of paramedics and ambulances. Maybe not a 70% cut, as that would throw the fire department into paroxysms of fear, but but at least an effort must be made to get the need for fire services down to a number more reflective of the actual need for their services.

It is not news to fire department administrators, that the reduction of fires is a threat to their livelihood and job descriptions. Their ability to earn a substantial living is being threatened.

Is it time to go back to the original intention and mandate of the fire services? Reduce the number of firefighters, and reduce the ancillary major equipment such as $1million dollar fire trucks responding to calls. This is not a radical proposal, but one which will go against public perceptions. The media duly report every puppy rescued from a burning house (some fire trucks are carrying animal respirators – talk about branching out), cover every fire department fund raiser, and endlessly portray the firefighters as risking their lives, and of course promote their calendars.

So be prepared for the backlash. In Toronto the firefighters purchased ads on the local media all claiming of course that the government was putting “lives at risk”. Utter nonsense, as the firefighters themselves say they are merely filling the gap left by traditional ambulance services.

To recommend reducing the number of firefighters will be considered sacrilege, an attack on the emergency services world. I am just saying that we should hit the nail of the problem with a hammer, not with an expensive jack hammer. Everyone loves the image, but it is based on misperception and it is costly.

It is hallowed ground on which the firefighters walk, and you will need to be ready to hose down the flame throwing rhetoric that will come from the affected who will argue that you are “risking” the lives of your fellow citizens. I too am in favour of fire personnel, but we just don’t need that many of them.

http://www.bcehs.ca/about/news-stories/news-roll/province-announces-$5-million-to-boost-paramedic-response-to-b-c-s-overdose-crisis

** On March 9, 2017 the BC Government announced a $91.4 million funding boost for emergency services, which will go to 6 new ambulances, and 60 new paramedics. I suspect this may have something to do with the election, and not my blog post. Of course there is no cutback on the fire department, that would not do in an election period. **

Image courtesy of Liz West via Creative Commons licence Some Rights Reserved