Looters taking advantage of B.C. fires are typical at natural disasters: expert

VANCOUVER — As if the risk of losing their homes isn't enough, wildfire evacuees in British Columbia have faced the additional threat of looters searching through their belongings after they rushed to safety.

Rob Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University in Surrey, B.C., says looting is an unfortunate but routine part of virtually every natural disaster, from fires to floods, hurricanes to earthquakes.

"It's predatory behaviour of the worst kind," Gordon said, adding that looters are opportunists.

"There is nothing especially organized. People just see a chance to make off with somebody else's possessions, and they'll do it if they can get away with it."

The RCMP said they have arrested a half-dozen people accused of exploiting the disaster over the past week.

Emergency officials have ordered thousands of residents to lock up and leave since the province declared a state of emergency on July 7 after hundreds of fires started across B.C.'s central and southern Interior.

Gordon said looters are often locals who have had an eye on a particular house or business. Besides cash, the most likely items to be stolen are typically small, portable and easy to resell, such as electronics, jewelry and guns, he said.

"There's a market in firearms," he explained. "And they're, generally speaking, quite easy to move."

To help prevent looting, Gordon would like to see police train volunteer safety officers who would remain in their communities during an emergency, when it's safe to do so.

"My betting is there would be a lot of people willing to go back into their communities to protect their property and the property of their neighbours," he said, comparing it to a volunteer firefighting program.

"It's a model of emergency service which is already in place in many respects," Gordon said of auxiliary policing systems. "A lot of communities have them. The Gulf Islands have them. I'm just surprised that is not the case in the Interior."

Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson said he has been receiving reports of "fake fire marshals" knocking on doors telling residents their street is under an evacuation alert.

"We believe that these are people potentially looking for opportunities to rob vacant homes," Simpson said.

"Most of my thoughts are unprintable. I think it's unconscionable that these individuals take advantage of this situation."

Swindlers are not necessarily always on the ground when emergencies hit. Evan Kelly of the Better Business Bureau warned about scam artists who set up fake crowdfunding websites to take money illegally.

"It really comes down to the emotional aspect, and that's what scammers are trying to capitalize on here," he said, describing such cons as "the lowest of the low."

Kelly encouraged people interested in donating online to contribute to charities that have registered with the Canada Revenue Agency. Door-to-door solicitors should be able to provide a tax receipt immediately without leaving the front step, he added.

— Follow @gwomand on Twitter

Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version based on information provided by the RCMP said at least a dozen arrests had been made by police.

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