SQ investigating ‘suspicious’ Danford Lake fire
Tension over public access to Danford Lake in Kazabazua is starting to boil over.
Following a “suspicious fire” at a once-popular swim spot on the lake on May 31, the municipality is pleading for people to respect the rights of lake land owners.
For more than 50 years what’s known by locals as the Danford Lake beach or old boat ramp near the intersection of Chemin du Lac Danford Ouest and Rue Davies was a popular swim spot and boat launch for Kazabazua residents who didn’t own waterfront property. But a few years ago the ownership of the property changed, and in fall 2020 a steel gate blocking vehicle access was erected. In late May, two metal gates on either side of the vehicle gate were added, which blocks pedestrian access to the swim spot.
Kazabazua resident Shelley Merrifield, who previously lived on Danford Lake, said she heard about the new fences and went to see them for herself a couple of weeks ago. She said that even though she hasn’t swam at the beach for decades, the gates represent a loss for people who aren’t fortunate enough to have waterfront property or access to lakes or the river.
“It was disheartening,” she told The Low Down. “[The property owners] made it clear that they don’t want anyone on the lake except people with a place on the lake.”
The municipality of Kazabazua doesn’t have any formal public access points on any lakes or along the Gatineau River in its territory.
Merrifield posted her thoughts and photos of the gates on the “Kazabazua Folks” Facebook group on May 31, and people in the comment section called for tearing the gate down or even gathering on the beach en-masse in protest. She told the newspaper that she wasn’t calling for these kinds of actions, and doesn’t condone retaliation or vandalism.
But on May 31 around 8:45 p.m., the Kazabazua Fire Department responded to a report of a brush fire near the beach, Fire Chief Shawn Chamberlain said.
He said that bystanders with buckets of lake water worked to knock down a good portion of the fire before his crew arrived at the scene. No firefighters were injured during the five minutes it took for them to put out the fire, which reached about 200 square feet in size, Chamberlain said.
“It wasn’t a campfire,” Chamberlain said when asked about the cause. “Everything’s transferred to the police.”
When asked if investigators suspect foul play, he said “That’s usually why we transfer our file to the police.”
Sûreté du Québec Sgt. Marc Tessier said that the cause of the “suspicious” fire is still under investigation. When asked, he said that it could have been caused by arson, but added that the SQ has investigated a lot of fires as possible arsons that turned out to be accidental in origin.
“When the fire department can’t determine the cause or think it’s criminal, they transfer [the investigation] to us,” Tessier explained.
He added that officers interviewed witnesses, but no suspects have been identified.
On June 4 around 9:30 p.m., Merrifield said she returned home to find two SQ officers waiting for her.
“At first they accused me of the arson. But then they said they already had a suspect,” she said.
Merrifield said she was read her rights and she let the officers look at her phone for evidence before they told her to delete her May 31 Kazabazua Folks post.
“They said my post was possibly inciting people to do it,” she said about the possible incident of arson.
On June 6, Kazabazua director general Pierre Vaillancourt issued a press release stating that the beach and boat ramp is private property and that the gates were all put up legally.
“The municipality of Kazabazua has no right to intervene in [the owners’] decision to put up a gate or stop the public from accessing the lake, as they are the property owners.
Therefore, it is important that people respect the land owners’ rights,” he wrote.
Mayor Robert Bergeron told The Low Down that no matter the property owners’ reasons – stopping trespassing, protecting the lake from invasive species piggy-backing on the bottoms of unwashed boats, or safety concerns with people swimming where motorboats are being taken in and out of the water – they were within their rights to put up the gate.
“That’s the sad part. We have no other access to the [Gatineau] river or lakes,” he said when asked where else people can legally go for a swim.
He said that the municipality is working on formalizing public access to both Danford Lake and the Gatineau River, but that will take time and money.
The Kazabazua Folks Facebook group has been recently filled with posts about other conflicts between people trying to access the water and land owners.