There is no physical evidence linking Percival Williams to a 1,500-hectare fire sparked near Lytton six years ago — just the word of his ex-girlfriend and the theory of a BC Wildfire Service investigator.
That’s what a judge was told this week during the 51-year-old’s trial in B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops on one count of arson. Williams is charged in connection with the Botanie Creek Fire, which started on July 15, 2014, destroying two structures, forcing 45 homes to be evacuated and prompting declaration of a state of local emergency.
Steven Richburg, a BC Wildfire Service investigator and an expert in origin and cause of wildfires, told court he arrived on the scene two days after the blaze began and zeroed in on a stretch of Botanie Creek Road where a highways worker had filmed a spot fire on his cellphone.
Richburg said the video led him to believe the fire started along that stretch of road.
“It is the area of suspicion because it’s quiet,” he said, noting the spot was no longer on fire when he arrived. “It’s the area that burns first and then it goes out.”
According to Richburg, char angles and cupping — distinct burn patterns on trees believed to indicate the direction a fire is headed — helped him conclude the fire began in the area.
Under questioning from Crown prosecutor Tim Livingston, Richburg said he worked to rule out all natural or accidental causes — lightning strike, juvenile, mechanical, railroads, vehicles, BC Hydro transmission lines and smoking materials.
Richburg said the absence of any of those causes led him to determine the blaze was suspicious. He said he formed the opinion it was “hot-set” — meaning lit by an open flame — despite no evidence of any matches, lighters or other incendiary devices.
In his cross-examination of Richburg, defence lawyer Jay Michi suggested the investigator was working to prove his theory.
“You worked backwards, trying to eliminate any barriers to your hypothesis that this was a human-caused fire,” Michi said.
“Your ladyship, we go unbiased onto the site,” Richburg told B.C. Supreme Court Justice Amy Francis. “There is no predetermined thought on that process until we get there and we look at what we’ve got.”
“You eliminated possibilities to confirm your hypothesis?” Michi asked.
“That is correct because that is the process we have to follow,” Richburg replied.
Michi then asked Richburg whether he could say conclusively whether the fire was intentionally set by a person.
“Your ladyship, we eliminated natural fire and we eliminated equipment and all the other things involved that were explained in the determination process,” Richburg said. “We came up with either hot-set open flame or suspicious, [meaning] we don’t know.”
Williams became a suspect in the blaze after his ex-girlfriend went to police to report that he had texted her, claiming to have started the fire, though she said she immediately deleted the text and no version of it has been presented as evidence.
Lawyers are expected to make closing arguments on Thursday, Nov. 5.
Williams is not in custody.