Church charged after fatal fire
The Recorder and Times
A local church is hoping Elizabethtown-Kitley Township will clear it of charges after a man died while having an unauthorized fire on its property earlier this year.
The township’s fire department has charged Smiths Falls-based Bethel Pentecostal Church, which owns the piece of property on Leacock Road where the fire took place, just over $20,000 after they were forced to respond to the illegal blaze on Apr. 28.
The incident occurred when Gilbert Johnston – who had permission to be on the property – had been using an outdoor firepit in close proximity to his seasonal trailer when it spread to and engulfed the structure.
At the time, Fire Chief Jim Donovan told this newspaper the man was sent to hospital after suffering serious burns to his lower body and hands; he suffered the burns after trying to extinguish the fire himself, which he had despite a counties wide fire ban in place at the time due to COVID-19.
Johnston was taken to the Smiths Falls hospital before being airlifted to the burn centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto where he later died at the age of 88.
In addition to the fire department’s costs, authorities also had to dispatch an ambulance, an Ontario Provincial Police officer, and a fire marshal investigator. Responding to the incident cost the fire department $20,031.80 – a cost that is now being billed to the church as the property owners.
Andrew Howard, a lawyer acting pro bono for the church, told township councillors on Monday that his clients are “not really in a position to pay the fee.”
He said the church didn’t explicitly allow or condone Johnston’s openly burning on the property, but explained that he used to own the land before transferring it to the church in
September 2005.
As part of that transfer, he and the church had a unique agreement whereby he was allowed to use the property in the same way he had done as the owner.
“Mr. Johnston was a man of integrity and faith and continued to be a member of the church until his passing, and was appointed by the church as the caretaker of the property. And he had done so for the past 15 years without incident,” Howard said.
“The church, again, did not condone the activities. That’s not to say they’re not responsible; they’re also saying there was nothing they really could do other than put in place the people to look after the property, and for 15 years Mr. Johnston had done that admirably and without incident.”
In a report to council, the fire department said there was evidence of multiple people using the property for different activities, including a camping trailer, storage garage, and two structures that appeared to be temporary dwellings – all of which contain a campfire pit.
The agreement Johnston had with the church allows his children to use the property in the same manner he did until either the church sold the property or the children died.
But as owner of the property, it’s up to the church to make sure all laws are being followed, the township said, including making sure everyone has the appropriate burn permits.
Howard asked the township to consider a “reduction or elimination” of the charges.
Township clerk Yvonne Robert said staff would come up with a recommendation and present it to council in January.