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Chief coping with fallout after firefighters charged with arson


August 29, 2016
By The Canadian Press

Aug. 29, 2016, Sydney, N.S. - Dave Julian says serial arson charges laid against two volunteer firefighters he worked alongside in rural Cape Breton came as a shock — but it turns out the cases aren't as rare as he once thought.

“It’s called firefighter arson. It’s not uncommon,” the Florence fire chief said in a telephone interview, referring to arrests in Canada and the United States popping up in media reports in recent years.

The Cape Breton Regional Police announced Friday that 49-year-old Stephen Tremblett of North Sydney and 24-year-old James Clayton MacDonald of Bras d’Or have been charged with arson in connection with a series of fires.

Tremblett was scheduled to appear in court to face 12 arson charges, while MacDonald faces 16 arson charges.

Investigators said the blazes involved damaged vehicles, brush, abandoned buildings and two residences over the summer, keeping Julian and his team of 24 volunteers steadily occupied in the area about 30 kilometres north of Sydney.

Julian said MacDonald and Tremblett helped drive trucks and operate equipment in almost all of the cases.

“They worked hard on all the calls, just like all the others guys … They blended right in, doing everything from driving the trucks and fighting the fires,” he said.

“They are good firemen. I don’t know what happened.”

Police Chief Peter McIsaac said during his news conference in Sydney, N.S., that it’s premature to speculate on potential motives for the alleged arson.

But McIsaac said he’s aware that in other instances the motives are related to the “hero image” and the thrill of creating a blaze to battle.

“It’s not uncommon for it to happen in rural areas where fires … don’t happen a lot and you get individuals who will light them for the adrenaline rush and the lure of the lights and the siren,” he said.

The most recent Canadian case to attract attention was in Mayerthorpe, Alta., where a firefighter who battled the flames that destroyed a railway trestle bridge northwest of Edmonton in May, was later charged with setting the blaze.

The RCMP have said 19-year-old Lawson Michael Schalm, 19, of Mayerthorpe faces 18 counts of arson following an investigation.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-based National Volunteer Fire Council estimates on its website there are about 100 arrests annually alleging firefighter arson across North America.

Ed Nordskog, an author and arson profiler with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, said he has received more than 10 calls this year from Canadian firefighting agencies asking for his advice on cases of serial firefighter arson.

“Statistics are hard to find because it’s quite an embarrassing thing and fire agencies aren’t great at keeping track of these things,” he said.

He notes that many of the arrests in Canada and the United States are of wildfire firefighters who set fires to make money off them, but in volunteer firefighting the motive has more often been due to boredom.

“In modern U.S. and Canada there’s not that many fires anymore. … As things get more fire safe there are fewer accidental fires, but the arson rate has stayed the same,” he said.

“What you have in most firefighter arson is a mixture of things. … It’s probably excitement. Perhaps boredom.”

Julian said dealing with the fallout of the charges is challenging in a small community.

“It’s going to be pretty hard asking for donations when your fire department has two guys in it charged with serial arson. We have to stick with it and get through it,” he said.

Julian’s father was fire chief for 25 years before retiring and passing on the community role to his son, who also drives a large truck for a living.

“You grow up with it,” he said. “We are a busy fire department. We don’t really stop. There’s always something to do.”

His team of volunteers organizes teenagers’ dances, responds to car crashes and trains weekly to upgrade skills that help save lives in car crashes and house fires.

McIsaac and Julian say that while they’ve become more aware of firefighter arson, the public should recall the vast majority of volunteers are providing a community service for an annual stipend that usually is in the hundreds of dollars.

“I hope this doesn’t paint us all with the same brush,” said Julian.