Creelman, Sask.—population 81, according to the last census—has a hockey rink, post office, coffee shop, general store, United Church, and not much else. But by the time its serial arsonist is done, residents fear there may be a good deal less. Until a month ago, the village, situated 115 km southeast of Regina, had gone 30 years without a house fire. Now, in just a few weeks, four homes have been set ablaze, and its citizens want answers. “Everyone’s afraid,” says Mayor Don Anslow. “You just don’t feel at ease when you go to bed.”
The first two fires came on the night of May 28. A vacant house on Main Street was already fully engulfed in flames by the time the volunteer firefighters arrived from the nearest fire station in Filmore, 11 km away (firefighters also came in from Stoughton, which is 24 km in the other direction). The hoses had barely been unrolled when someone detected a second blaze, inside an empty vacation property across the back alley on Stanley Street. Set on mattresses and paper placed across stove burners, that fire was quickly extinguished, but it caused extensive smoke damage.
The third fire came late on June 16, gutting a house that was being renovated on the other side of Main Street and destroying a tractor-trailer parked outside. Flames shot 25 feet in the air and burned so fiercely that they melted the vinyl siding off a neighbouring property.
All of the fires have been set between 11 p.m. and midnight, “just when you’re getting off to sleep,” says Anslow. So when his phone rang around 11:15 p.m. on July 5, he knew it was more bad news. This time it was a vacant home set ablaze on Filmore Street. The mayor and other residents helped control the blaze until firefighters arrived, and the property sustained mostly smoke damage.
To date, no one has been physically hurt—the arsonist seems to know which buildings are empty. (“It’s probably someone getting a high out of seeing the fire trucks and all the people,” Anslow posits.) That’s not much comfort to residents, who have watched in dread as the cinders drift through their village. The RCMP promises to beef up patrols, but the nearest detachment is in Filmore. On the night of the latest blaze, the RCMP had to dispatch someone from Weyburn, almost an hour away, as two of the three local officers were on vacation, and the third, a rookie, wasn’t allowed out on his own.
This past week, villagers set up a nightly watch, taking turns walking the streets from dusk to dawn. A 1,250-gallon water tank and pump (not only is Creelman too small for a fire department, it doesn’t have any hydrants) have been hitched to the municipal tractor, ready to chug into action.
But in a place where no one locks their doors, the wariness is an uncomfortable fit. “People are very apprehensive, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Jolyn MacDonald, owner of the general store. “It’s pretty much the only topic of conversation.” It was her daughter’s home that saw its siding melt. “My son-in-law was just gutted,” she says.
Not only is everyone worried about their safety, but also the potential cost. Filmore’s fire department charges $750 for the first hour, and $350 an hour after that. Stoughton, which has more equipment, charges $1,000 to respond to a call, then $750 for each additional hour. Few home policies cover the fees: only the first structure, a property owned by the village that was scheduled to be demolished, had such insurance.
MacDonald says residents have begun voicing their suspicions, “focusing on the strangers.” (In the last few years, several new families have moved to the area, lured by nearby jobs in the oil and gas industry.) But the store owner, a resident for 26 years, is preaching caution. “I’ve learned not to voice opinions about things like this. Gossip can be really damaging is such a small place.”
Anslow, who has lived in the town for 60 years, has heard the same rumblings, but refuses to heed them. “I think maybe it’s somebody driving in from somewhere else. Maybe even 30 or 40 miles away,” he says. “I can’t believe it’s anybody from Creelman.”