Quebec conspiracy theorist who blamed government for wildfires pleads guilty to arson

A Quebec man who posted conspiracy theories online that the government was deliberately setting forest fires has pleaded guilty to starting a series of fires himself that forced hundreds of people from their homes.

Brian Paré, 38, pleaded guilty Monday to 13 counts of arson and one count of arson with disregard for human life at the courthouse in Chibougamau, Que.

Prosecutor Marie-Philippe Charron told the court that two of the 14 fires set by Paré forced the evacuation of about 500 homes in Chapais, Quebec, a small community about 425 kilometers northwest of Quebec City.

“On May 31 at 8:30 p.m., the city of Chapais issued a mandatory evacuation order due to intense fires, in particular the Lake Cavan fire as well as the airport fire, two fires that are included in the charges and were caused by the defendant,” Charron said while presenting an agreed statement of facts.

City residents were not able to return to their homes until June 3, Charron said. The Lake Cavan fire was by far the largest caused by Paré, burning almost 873 hectares of forest, he said. It was also one of the first in a series of five fires that Paré lit between May 31 and June 1; The wave began three days after the Quebec government banned open fires in or around forests due to dry weather conditions.

Five fires in a short period of time in the same area raised suspicions, Charron said. Provincial police and first responders “observed that some of the fires had no possible natural cause,” she said, adding that evidence was found that some of the fires had been criminally set.

Charron said police first spoke to Paré on June 2. He had been seen in the area where a fire had started and he was considered a witness. While he denied setting the fires, she said Paré “demonstrated some interest in the fires” during the interview, leading police to suspect him.

In June, he said, police began monitoring Paré’s Facebook page, where he regularly posted about Quebec’s record wildfire season. Among those posts, which remain on his public Facebook page, were claims that the government had deliberately set the fires to mislead people into believing in climate change.

Paré’s ideology and behavior, including those Facebook posts, matched a profile of the suspect developed by provincial police specialists, he said.

A #Quebec man who blamed the government for #wildfires pleads guilty to setting 14 fires. #Chibougamau

Charron said police obtained a court order to install a tracking device on Paré’s vehicle. On September 1 and 5, he said, that tracking device showed he was in places where other fires were started.

Paré was arrested on September 7, he said, and when questioned this time, he admitted to starting nine of the fires.

“At that time, the accused admitted that it was he who started the fires and, as his main motivation, he stated that he was doing tests to find out if the forest was really dry or not,” said Charrón.

Paré, detained since his arrest, said little during the hearing and only answered “yes” to a series of questions from the judge.

A pre-sentence report has been ordered that will consider both Paré’s mental state and the risk he poses to public safety. It will be presented before April 22.

Two other charges, criminal trespass and public nuisance, have been conditionally suspended, Charron said.

More than 700 wildfires burned more than 4.5 million hectares of Quebec forests over the summer, according to the province’s forest fire service, which said 99.9 per cent of the fires were sparked by lightning.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2024.

— By Jacob Serebrin in Montreal.

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