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Juice, not gas: Fire that set B.C.’s ‘World’s Biggest Burl’ ablaze not deliberate

Port McNeill Mayor James Furney said it was an act of carelessness, not arson; burl will be restored
Port McNeill’s “World’s Largest Burl” went up in flames in May. The cause of the fire was determined to be the improper extinguishing of a cigarette. (Derek Koel photo)

Plenty of small Canadian towns have one huge attraction, like the big nickel in Sudbury, Ontario, or the giant mower in Enderby, British Columbia.

For Port McNeill, on the northern end of Vancouver Island, that larger-than-life structure is the ‘World’s Largest Burl.’

In May of this year, the almost 70,000-pound monument caught fire — not through the ubiquitous spectre of the B.C. wildfire cycle, and not by an act of vandalism either. Unfortunately, it took some time for that fact to become clear and not before two innocent teens had to mistakenly face the wrath of an outraged public.

A tree burl is an abnormal growth on a tree, essentially like nature’s tumour. Similar to human tumours, excessive cell growth causes the trunk deformities. Cut from a spruce tree more than 500-years-old, the big burl in Port McNeill weighs 30 tonnes, and stands approximately 20 feet high, garnering the Guinness World Record for the largest preserved burl in the world.

At 1:29 a.m. on May 18, the Port McNeill RCMP responded to a call reporting that the burl was on fire. The burl and its protective structure were completely engulfed, and the structure was completely destroyed. The burl sustained extensive damages.

CCTV footage later revealed two suspects that were seen in the area carrying what looked like a yellow jerry can around the time the fire was determined to have started, but new information has revealed it wasn’t actually gas container the suspects were carrying.

It was a jug of apple juice.

The apple juice discovery was made after a local parent saw the footage and recognized the container as something he buys for his kids from the local IGA, according to Mayor James Furney.

The two young men in the footage were able to prove it was in fact juice, having had the receipt and the purchase was successfully confirmed.

Coupled with the container discovery and the fact that the boys were seen around the burl just after 11 p.m., hours before the fire, it was officially determined there was no criminal activity.

“About a month earlier we had some vandalism in town. The town had a very short fuse for a public act of vandalism, so when a second act was witnessed people were very upset. Reactions were nowhere near positive,” Furney said.

The cause of the fire has since been determined to be an improperly extinguished cigarette, but the boys have still taken accountability even though there is no way to know if it belonged to them.

They’ve been absolved of criminal charges, and have enrolled in a volunteer group that is working to restore the structure and the burl, according to Furney.

READ MORE: Port McNeill RCMP catch suspects who allegedly burned the World’s Biggest Burl

Even though the issue has reached a point of resolution, Furney said the boys involved received significant backlash from the town that continues to impact them.

“One doesn’t exit his home anymore. He is scared for his well-being,” Furney said.

“These poor young fellas who really were proven to be innocent of any ill-intent suffered that wrath of a town quick to decisions of their guilt.”

Going forward, Furney said the plan is to restore the burl as much as possible, and when asked if the title would still be held outside of any volume losses, Furney paused to laugh before answering.

“Don’t you blasphemy like that!” he said with feigned shock.

“It’s still the world’s largest burl! It might not be the heaviest, but we like to call it the world’s hottest burl instead,” he said.

Furney stressed that there was no ill-intent, and that this was merely an unfortunate accident.