Morinville residents shouldn’t jump to conclusions when it comes to the cause of the fire at St. Jean Baptiste Church, says the former RCMP officer investigating it.
Morinville town council got a brief update July 13 on the investigation of the St. Jean Baptiste Church fire.
The town’s iconic 114-year church burned down June 30 in what RCMP described as a suspicious fire. Premier Jason Kenney later condemned the fire as what appeared to be a “hate-motivated act of violence,” linking it to other acts of arson and vandalism that were happening across the county due to outrage over the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools.
Morinville resident and former RCMP officer Kevin Wedick was on scene at the fire shortly after firefighters arrived.
“It was kind of surreal to get called and arrive to watch this beautiful historical building on fire,” he said, adding that his grandchildren had been baptized there.
“The historic loss is significant to the community.”
A certified fire explosion investigator with 37 years in the industry, Wedick was one of the lead investigators into the cause of the St. Jean Baptiste Church fire, and spent more than a week interviewing witnesses, scrutinizing photos and videos, and sifting through ashes for clues.
“My job is just to determine the origin and the cause,” he emphasized — criminal matters, such as who (if anyone) caused the fire, are in the hands of the RCMP.
Morinville Staff Sgt. Chris Palfy said his department is still investigating the fire, and is not sure when they will be finished.
“There’s no real boilerplate way of doing it,” he said.
“The matter is a priority for us, and we are expending a significant amount of manpower and resources to conduct a thorough investigation.”
While Wedick and Palfy could not discuss the details of the St. Jean Baptiste case, Wedick was able to discuss how fire investigations generally take place.
“Probably one of the most complex investigations to investigate is a fire,” he said, as the fire often destroys the evidence they seek.
Fire investigation is a scientific, systemic process that seeks to determine if the cause of a blaze is accidental, natural, incendiary (intentional), or undetermined, Wedick said. Eyewitness testimony, and particularly cellphone video and photos, can provide vital clues as to where, how, and sometimes why a fire started. Drone photography can also help scope out a scene; his team had a drone flying over the St. Jean Baptiste site soon after the fire was put out.
Wedick said investigators may use air samplers and lab analyses to try and detect accelerants used to start fires.
“Nothing compares to the ability of a dog,” he said, so investigators often take trained sniffer dogs with them to burn sites.
Wedick said investigators often study a building’s service panels, particularly if there is any recent electrical work done. They would also seek out defective wiring, sump pumps, furnaces, air conditioners, or other appliances. Investigators can use the burn rates of different materials and arc mapping (which seeks to track the locations of electrical faults in a fire) to trace a fire’s progress.
While some fires are simple cases, some can prove deceptive or unsolvable, Wedick said.
“A lot of people want to jump to conclusions and that’s dangerous,” he said, adding that there is a lot of finger-pointing going on in the community right now.
“You cannot jump to conclusions. You have to (take) a systematic approach.”
Wedick said his report on the fire should be completed by mid-August. Town council heard they would receive a presentation on the findings from Fire Chief Brad Boddez once that happens.