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Police investigating suspicious fire on Gabriola Island

Police, fire and insurance investigators are still picking through the ashes of the Gabriola Rod, Gun and Conservation Club's clubhouse which burned to the ground last week.

The remains of the clubhouse, located at the club's shooting range in a wooded area off Tait Road in central Gabriola, were discovered Saturday.

The fire occurred sometime between the afternoon of Nov. 15, the last time club members used the building, and Saturday when it was discovered by a club member.

No one called 911 to report a fire or smoke in the area, so it is difficult to pinpoint what time the structure caught fire, said the island's fire chief.

"We got called there, probably the day after it burned," said Rick Jackson, Gabriola Fire Department chief. "We got there and it was stone cold. It was out, not even smoke, so then it was trying to figure out what happened."

The building was propane-heated and its electricity was supplied by a propane-fueled generator. The heat and generator were not left on, so there was no apparent reason why it should have caught fire, said Jackson.

"It's pretty suspicious why it caught fire with nobody around," Jackson said. "People are saying, 'arson,' but I'm not. It's suspicious."

The club, which has been located at the site since the late 1970s has has been in an ongoing dispute with neighbours, complaining of noise and safety concerns, who want the club to relocate, that has escalated into a civil suit against the club which is before the B.C. Supreme Court.

Paul Metcalfe, club director, said the the club has been vandalized in the past. On previous occasions locks to the clubhouse had been clogged with wood, trap machines used to launch clay pigeons were sabotaged and excrement was spread on the club's gate padlock.

Metcalfe said there no evidence linking anyone involved in the civil suit to the incidents.

"There is nothing, I repeat, nothing to link anybody with any malfeasance on our property," Metcalfe said.

Still, Metcalfe said, there was no reason for the fire to have started spontaneously from any of the activities on the site.

The club will build a new clubhouse.

"We rebuild and continue our operations," Metcalfe said. "We have been on the island, as a shooting organization since the early 1920s, so we're part of the culture of the island. We're not going anywhere."

Jackson, who called in the RCMP to do a forensic investigation of the scene, said police and insurance investigators have, so far, come to no conclusions about how the fire started. Because the destruction is so complete, there is no possibility of finding evidence that an accelerant was used to start the blaze and Jackson said he will likely file a report saying as much to the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

"There's nothing left that you can really go through," Jackson said.

Gabriola RCMP Cpl. Trevor MacKay, who investigated the scene, said the police probe is continuing. Investigators are trying to nail down the time of the fire by looking at items collected from the scene and sifting facts from rumours.

"We're looking at every possibility," MacKay said. "I don't know if it was accidental. I don't know if it was a fuel source. I don't know if it's arson. We're really at the preliminary stages. Items were seized and we're looking at them further."

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