Advertisement

A climate conspiracy theorist said the government deliberately lit wildfires. He just pleaded guilty to starting 14 himself

A Canadian man who posted conspiracy theories on social media claiming the government was deliberately starting wildfires has pleaded guilty to starting 14 blazes that forced hundreds of people from their homes.

Brian Paré, appearing in a Quebec court Monday, admitted to 13 counts of arson, and one count of arson with a disregard for human life, relating to events between May and September last year.

Prosecutor Marie-Philippe Charron said one of the fires Paré set forced the evacuation of around 400 people in the town of Chapais, Quebec. The largest fire Paré admitted to starting destroyed more than 870 hectares.

“Mr. Pare does not remember all of the fires he could have started, so we have currently 14 fires, we have 14 counts,” Charron told CNN. “It’s possible there are more but we do not have evidence of that,” she added.

Charron said police and first responders grew suspicious when a number of fires happened over a short period of time without a discernible cause.

Police officers became interested in Paré after he was spotted in the areas of several fires. They also found multiple social media posts by Paré accusing the Canadian government of purposefully igniting fires to persuade people to believe in climate change.

“According to police evidence, the accused posted a lot of conspiracy theories about the fires and the government’s involvement in possibly setting those fires,” Charron said.

After getting permission to attach a tracking device to his vehicle, police were able to trace it to the location of other fires.

He admitted to starting some of the fires when he was arrested in September.

Canada’s 2023 wildfire season was record-shattering, scorching around 18.4 million hectares (45.5 million acres) — an area roughly the size of North Dakota and more than double the previous record.

Smoke from the fires poured southward, choking cities in the United States and even making it as far east as Europe.

Wildfires have long been a focus for conspiracy theorists, with claims that they are started by governments, climate activists or even by laser beams from space.

Canada’s unprecedented fires triggered a wave of disinformation, according to a 2023 report by the global coalition Climate Action Against Disinformation. This included false claims the wildfires were set intentionally to scare people into supporting climate action.

High-profile figures helped fuel these conspiracy theories. In June, Maxime Bernier, a former Canadian foreign minister, claimed in a post on X that a “good portion” of fires were likely started by “green terrorists who want to give their climate change campaign a little boost.”

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith was also criticized for remarks on the fires. During a June conversation with talk show host Ryan Jespersen, she refused to respond directly to questions about the impact climate change had on the fires, instead focusing on the role of arsonists.

Human activity does play a role in starting wildfires, either deliberately or through accidental actions such as discarding a lit cigarette, but natural factors are also involved.

Lightning strikes played a huge role in last year’s fires, according to Quebec’s Forest Fire Protection Agency. “Nearly 53% of fires were caused by lightning causing more than 99% of the area burned this year,” a spokesperson for the fire agency told CNN.

Focusing on a single cause can also obscure the role of human-caused global warming, which is fueling the very hot and dry conditions that help fires spread faster, and burn longer and more intensely.

“Widespread drought combined with a devastating lightning line are responsible for this historic season,” Quebec’s fire agency spokesperson said.

A recent analysis by scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative — which calculates the role of climate change in extreme weather events — found that climate change made the hot, dry and windy weather that drove last year’s fires in Quebec at least twice as likely and up to 50% more intense.

Kira Hoffman, a fire ecologist at the University of British Columbia and the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, said there are many factors that contribute to extreme wildfire seasons, including logging and abandoning Indigenous fire stewardship techniques.

But all these factors interact with the climate crisis, Hoffman told CNN last year. “A rapidly changing climate is creating longer, drier and hotter wildfire seasons across Canada.”

Paré remains in custody. A pre-sentencing report was requested by his defense lawyer, and it is expected to be released in April.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com