Court confirms CN on the hook for $16 million for starting BC wildfire
A B.C. Supreme Court judge has largely upheld an order forcing Canadian National Railways to pay more than $16 million for starting a forest fire that burned for months near Lytton in 2015 .
It cost the province millions of dollars to battle the blazes that ignited when sparks from CN’s rail-cutting activities ignited the surrounding grass during a period of hot, dry and windy weather, according to reasons for judgment released Wednesday.
The wildfire began burning on June 11, 2015 and eventually spread to cover 22 square kilometers before finally being extinguished in October. Several people living on Lytton First Nation lands were forced to evacuate, the community of Lytton was placed on evacuation alert, and an empty building was destroyed.
In March 2020, the Forest Appeals Commission ordered CN will pay a total of $16.62 million in penalties, firefighting costs, damage to natural resources and reforestation costs.
British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Neena Sharma’s ruling this week keeps the vast majority of the details of that order in place. However, the overall cost to CN was reduced slightly to $16.20 million after the railroad and the province agreed that the commission had incorrectly reclassified some grasslands as forest in its calculations of damaged land.
On the day the fire broke out, just south of Lytton, the fire danger in the area was rated as « extreme », in Sharma’s judgment.
But CN crew members hadn’t checked that information or consulted weather data for the area before they started cutting rails, even though it’s considered a « high-risk activity » under the Wildfire Regulation. of British Columbia.
The workers did not have an adequate fire suppression system or the 300-gallon water tank required by CN policy, the ruling says.
Rail company questioned wildfire tactics
CN has never disputed that it violated British Columbia wildfire laws and regulations, but the company argued before the appeal board and in court that estimates of the costs of fighting the fires and damage to Crown lands were too high.
In particular, CN questioned the BC Wildfire Service’s strategy and tactics for fighting the fire – specifically a controlled burn on June 17, 2015, which was intended to prevent the flames from spreading further south into the valley. of the Fraser.
The railway giant argued that the planned fire had increased the area burned by around six square kilometers and that it should not be held liable for damages.
But the judge dismissed that logic, pointing out that the controlled burning wouldn’t have been necessary if CN hadn’t started a wildfire.
“There was no evidence that in the absence of the fire started by [CN]the province had planned or intended to burn the burn area for some reason that summer,” Sharma wrote.
« But for [CN]the fire probably would not have spread to the point of requiring such drastic firefighting measures. »
CN also took issue with the province’s use of estimates rather than exact personal expenses to calculate what it spent on payroll for firefighters and support staff. Sharma also rejected those arguments, writing that it would be virtually impossible to calculate labor costs to meet CN’s suggested standard of proof.
The company also argued that the area damaged or destroyed by the fire was overestimated, but Sharma found that the province’s expert witness provided the strongest evidence on this issue, since he had in fact inspected the area in person and that CN’s surveyor had not done so.
As a result of Sharma’s decision, CN will also have to pay the province’s legal fees for arguing its case in court and before the appeal board.