Mayerthorpe’s fire chief said there’s a sense of betrayal following the arrest of a volunteer firefighter in connection with a slew of suspicious fires in the area.
“We didn’t see this coming,” Randy Schroeder said. “The aspect of what we do to protect the community, the lengths at which we strive in order to train…It’s devastating.”
On Saturday, Lawson Michael Schalm, 19, of Mayerthorpe, was charged with 18 counts of arson in relation to a recent rash of fires in the area, including the blaze which destroyed a CN trestle bridge.
Schalm is a junior firefighter with the Mayerthorpe Fire Department and was standing alongside firefighters battling the trestle bridge blaze.
“There’s a sense, on behalf of the members, a sense of betrayal, because the fact is we work very hard,” Schroeder said.
Schroeder said Schalm was a great firefighter and had good prospects of becoming a lifelong firefighter.
“It’s heartbreaking,” the fire chief added.
The fact that Schalm served in a volunteer capacity makes this even more upsetting, Schroeder said. Schalm signed on to be part of the volunteer department when he turned 18.
“This member started as a junior at 15 and…our cadet program emphasizes great community service.”
Schroeder said potential firefighters submit a job application, must pass a physical test and character references are checked. If an applicant begins the process after the age of 18, a criminal record check is requested by the department.
He said there is also a sense of shock over the arrest.
“[Schalm] was on five of the scenes – as an active firefighter – that are in question and at least four as a bystander,” Schroeder said. “We didn’t see it coming.”
He said Schalm showed no signs of being involved whatsoever.
“He was part of the attack to a limited basis with his training,” Schroeder said. “He wasn’t qualified for interior attack, but certainly on support lines and on exterior.”
The fire chief wonders what the department could have missed.
“I try not to take it personally. I’m struggling like any of our members with questions of ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ and ‘what did we miss?’ I would like to be able to roll the tape back metaphorically speaking and get a better understanding,” the fire chief said.
The mayor called the whole situation “heartbreaking and sad.”
“The community is saddened to hear of the arrest of this person but are happy to know it’s been successfully completed,” Kate Patrick said.
She confirmed Schalm was a member of the Mayerthorpe Fire Department and Lac Ste. Anne Fire Services.
Global News has learned Schalm is the son of former Mayerthorpe mayor Albert Schalm.
“We respectfully wish the community supports their family,” Patrick said.
“They’re well-respected, a very nice family. We want the community to move forward and honestly respect them.”
Theresa Wallace, 16, has known Schalm for several years. The Grade 11 student calls him a “super nice kid.”
“I don’t think he’s capable of this,” Wallace said. “He’s… super laid back. I don’t know, he’s a good kid. He’s shy, totally shy, but once you get to know him he’s super nice,” she said.
Wallace said Schalm, who was set to graduate Grade 12 this year, was involved with school plays and other programs.
“It’s kind of appalling when I found out he got arrested,” she said.
“Everybody is just focusing on if he’s OK. We’re more worried about his well-being than anything else.”
The community launched a citizens patrol group after the 17 fires in the area were sparked over a period of just six days. Then on Friday, five more suspicious fires were set.
Barry Fulford, a citizens patrol member, said the community is relieved following the arrest.
“Last night was kind of quiet in town. There were no fire trucks, no fires – it was kind of relaxing.”
“It’s a little more comforting,” he said. “It’s a little more settling. A sense of relief I’m sure will take place today.”
The patrol group is still going ahead despite the arrest.
Mayerthorpe, Alta. is located 120 kilometres north of Edmonton.
RCMP are not seeking any other suspects in the fires. They said further charges against Schalm could be laid, but did not elaborate.
With files from Julia Wong, Global News