Mounties said for the first time Tuesday the Fort McMurray wildfire was “most likely the result of human activity” and is now asking the public for assistance as they investigate what caused the massive blaze.
“That doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily arson,” RCMP Insp. Gibson Glavin said Tuesday before adding that if the fire does turn out to have been deliberately set, the RCMP could pursue charges. “If we do find a criminal cause, and if we do identify the person or persons who deliberately caused it, arson is a charge within the Criminal Code of Canada, a very serious charge, particularly if it potentially puts live and property at danger.
“We’ve been really lucky in this fire – nobody lost their lives or (was) seriously injured directly as a result of the fire – that’s extraordinary,” Glavin said, pointing out things could easily have turned out differently.
The fire has been burning for over six weeks as of Tuesday and RCMP said a joint investigation with wildfire investigators has ruled out lightning as a probable cause.
Watch below: Global News’ ongoing coverage of the Fort McMurray wildfire.
RCMP are involved in the investigation in order to establish whether or not a criminal offence took place with regard to the start of the fire.
According to police, the blaze, officially referred to as “MWF-009”, broke out about 15 kilometres southwest of Fort McMurray and was first spotted from the air on May 1 by a forestry crew.
Police are looking to speak with anyone who was using the Horse River Trail System between April 29 and May 5.
Glavin said many people may think they have no meaningful information to offer police, but highlighted the importance of calling the RCMP anyway.
“That would be completely natural, to think, ‘I don’t have anything to offer. I don’t really know what I saw.’ No, you’re exactly who we want to talk to.”
Ed Rostalski, a veteran fire investigator who worked on the Slave Lake fire and now works for Global Forensics Inc., said whether the investigation reveals the fire was deliberately set or simply the result of human error – like carelessly tossing a cigarette – minute pieces of evidence could be crucial in breaking the case.
“They’ll be looking for glass, they’ll be looking for debris…they may even find something as simple as a cigarette,” he said. “When you’re putting a puzzle together, the smallest little piece of information could be the key to everything.”
Anyone with information is asked to call the RCMP’s wildfire investigation phone line at 1-844-620-9826 or to submit an anonymous tip by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Earlier this month, the province completed the voluntary, phased re-entry into Fort McMurray after the fire forced over 80,000 people from their homes last month.
On Tuesday, Alberta Health Services lifted an air quality advisory for the community.
On Monday, the province announced the fire is being held for the first time since it became out of control in early May.
The fire destroyed roughly 2,400 buildings and scorched nearly 590,000 hectares of land.