Southeastern NB had a rash from fires. Officials know that many of them were no accident
Brad Powers sped from Moncton to Cap-Pelé in the middle of the night after learning his restaurant was on fire last April, hoping he would find something to save.
For more than 50 years, Chez Camille has served tourists and locals in the village some 50km north-east of Moncton, near the Northumberland Strait.
Powers had poured everything he had into the restaurant, known for its fried clams. The fire destroyed everything but the iconic shield.
“The windows were all out of the building, the whole roof was on fire, the whole dairy was completely gone,” Powers said.
Powers’ restaurant was one of more than 25 in a string of fires in the now merged community of Cap-Acadie, according to figures collected by the provincial Office of the Fire Marshal.
The restaurant fire was also one of at least 15 identified as suspicious by authorities.
According to an informational note prepared by the firefighter and obtained through a right-to-know and privacy request, 57 percent of fires in the region between 2019 and 2022 were deemed “fire,” compared to the provincial average of 35 percent.
When it comes to fires, the firefighter uses the term arson rather than arson.
The briefing note describes incendiary fires as “one that is intentionally ignited in circumstances where the person knows the fire should not be ignited”.
Michael Lewis, Fire Marshal, distinguishes this term from arson, which is defined under Canada’s Criminal Code as “deliberate or reckless damage to property by fire or explosion”.
CLOCK | Within the investigation of a conflagration in southeast NB
“There are things that would not meet the threshold for arson but would still be considered arson,” Lewis said in an interview.
“I’m not looking for criminal intent. I’m trying to find an unbiased version of what happened… what was the cause and the circumstances that led to it [to the fire].
“If my information reaches the threshold for a criminal conviction or prosecution from a police perspective, they can take that and move on.”
The briefing note, along with other notes provided through Access to Information, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the investigation and response to the fires.
canister in hand
Two days before Chez Camille burned, an employee at the restaurant noticed that the building’s sidings had melted and a gasoline-smelling pitcher was standing nearby, according to a firefighter’s report. The next day, Powers installed cameras.
The cameras captured images of “someone holding a jerry can and what appeared to be gasoline being poured onto the siding behind his restaurant” when the fire broke out, the report said.
“It’s just disheartening why anyone would do that to me,” Powers said. “Like I wouldn’t bother to hurt anyone. It just doesn’t make sense anymore why they would do it.”
Powers said he spent the better part of a year trying to understand a possible motive.
“We’re at the point now where I don’t want to find out anymore,” he said. “I’ll just be happy to rebuild, happy to be open and have another great season.”
5 fires in 3 weeks
While Chez Camille is set to be back in business in the coming months, several stores have disappeared for good.
These include smokehouses that were burned down in suspicious circumstances in 2021. In August of that year, three fish processing plants burned within three weeks, along with a garage and a truck.
The fish factories included two buildings belonging to Botsford Fisheries and one to M&M Cormier Fisheries in Petit-Cap, near Cap-Pelé. Both buildings in Botsford had been unused for some time prior to the fires, according to the Fire Marshal.
All fish systems were considered a total loss, only one of the three was rebuilt.
Another Cap Pelé restaurant — the Bel Air — had at least three fires before closing its doors permanently.
The building was being rebuilt after a fire in May 2019 when it was targeted again in November of the same year. Both were believed to have been intentionally set with video footage showing a crime committed in the latest fire, firefighter records show.
As the number of fires increased, the Office of the Fire Marshal increased its presence in the area, investigating almost every fire. The bureau began sending at least two investigators to every call.
“Once we’ve determined that there’s a statistical increase or number of fires that is above the provincial average, we tweak our approach a bit just to… make sure we’re leaving no stone unturned and that we’re showing a strong presence in.” the region,” said Lewis.
The fires also placed great demands on small fire departments in the region. The Cap-Pelé Fire Department — made up entirely of volunteer firefighters — has responded to most of these fires.
“It’s a challenge for [our volunteer firefighters]’ Lewis said. “These are the communities they live in. And like I said, these are economic drivers for the community. So whether it’s accidental or arson, the effects are the same.”
Other fires in the area include Saint-Timothée Catholic Church in Shemogue and Indian Point Lighthouse in Cape Tormentine. Both were total losses.
After several suspected fires, several local politicians called a meeting with area leaders, stakeholders, the RCMP and the firefighter in May 2022.
According to meeting minutes, obtained through a request for information, the meeting discussed increased patrols and additional corporate security for the region. They also discussed the demolition of buildings that had previously been attacked by fires.
“Many people were devastated.” – Brad Powers, owner of Chez Camille
Months after that meeting, a spokesman for the RCMP told CBC police were still investigating the fires but would not comment on possible links between the fires to protect “ongoing investigations.”
One person has been charged in connection with the fire at the Saint-Timothée Catholic Church and has pleaded not guilty and went on trial in April.
There is no evidence in the records of anyone being charged in connection with any other fires.
Powers is impressed with the support his restaurant has received since the fire.
“A lot of people were devastated,” he said.
After the fire, Powers said people would come by to see the place, “elderly people, elderly people, sitting in the car crying. It’s a staple for the community here.”
Not only common rooms were taken away. There were jobs too.
More than 20 jobs were lost when the fish factories burned down in August 2021, according to the Cap-Acadie Chamber of Commerce. Others lost their jobs when Bel Air Take Out burned down, and Powers hired some of those people at Chez Camille.
Powers said he intends to bring back as many of his former employees as possible when it reopens later this year.
Meanwhile, he ran a food truck last summer to keep some of his staff busy and to maintain the restaurant’s presence in the community.
“I think if we missed a year it would have looked more like we were gone,” he said.
Ten months after the fire that destroyed his restaurant, the new Chez Camille is taking shape. Powers said his new restaurant will be larger than the old one, with more seating.
But as he builds from scratch, he worries his business could be targeted again.
“I’m a little concerned, I’m not going to lie that it’s going to happen again like they did with Bel Air, because Bel Air had it so it was almost open and they’re burning it to the ground,” he said powers
“But I will not live in fear. We will live as if it happened, it shouldn’t have happened and live as if it won’t happen again.”