Lytton fire: Investigators eye criminal probe and rule out train spark in fire that wiped Canadian town off the map

·7 min read
 (2 Rivers Remix Society via Reuters)
(2 Rivers Remix Society via Reuters)

A fire that destroyed 90 per cent of a Canadian town and killed two people was not caused by a train travelling through the area, an investigation has found.

However, police are considering launching a criminal investigation into the cause of the devastating blaze.

Lytton, a small town in British Columbia, 260kms north east of Vancouver, was 90 per cent razed by a wildfire on June 30. The fire erupted days after Lytton broke the record for Canada’s all-time highest temperature for three days in a row, reaching 121.1F (49.5C). An elderly couple died in the fire and more than 1,000 people were evacuated.

The unusually high temperatures were caused by what meteorologists have described as a “heat dome” of high pressure over the Pacific Northwest and Canada’s British Columbia, the impact of which was worsened by human-caused climate change.

Days after Lytton was destroyed, the BC Wildfire Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), said they believed the fire was man-made. Videos circulating on social media and witness accounts pointed to a burning train spotted near the town as a possible cause.

Several social media users reported seeing sparks flying from train brakes before the fire broke out, near Canadian National (CN) Railway’s main line through Lytton. One video circulated on social media showed a smoking train travelling through the area.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board then launched an investigation into the fire, after receiving information from the RCMP and BC Wildfire Service.

However, officials were quick to pour cold water on the train theory at the time.

Thompson-Nicola Regional District chief administrative officer Scott Hildebrand said the train being the origin of the fire was “certainly not our view”.

Staff sergeant Janelle Shoihet, senior media relations officer at the RCMP said: “We are aware of the witnesses related to the train however we will not speculate as to whether this is a cause or effect, i.e. was the train on fire before the wildfire began or did it catch on fire as a result of the fire?”

CN and Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway both operate train services through Lytton. The route is a critical transportation route for the movement of goods across Western Canada and the rest of the continent.

According to the TSB report, released on Thursday at 10am Pacific time, a westbound, 157-car CP coal train was the last train to pass through Lytton, about 18 minutes before the fire was reported. The train was operated by CN crew due to a running agreement on this section of the track between the two companies.

As there was “reasonable grounds to believe that there was a situation or condition that could induce an accident or incident” caused by the train, the TSB deployed an investigator on 9 July to examine and photograph the area and assess the whether it could have caused the fire.

The TSB confirmed with both railway companies that no grinding activities or track work had taken place in the area that day or in the days prior. The coal train in question was also inspected for hot bearings, burnt brake heads, built-up tread, and other potential fire-creating causes.

Transport Canada had also performed a safety inspection of the train at the request of the RCMP.

“No anomalies were noted,” the report said.

The TSB examined videos taken from the train’s onboard cameras, data from hot box detectors along the tracks and data from the locomotive event recorder from the train’s lead and tail end, which were all found to be normal.

Interviews were also conducted with railway employees operating trains in the area or working in maintenance. No anomalies were observed or reported.

As such, the report concluded: “The TSB investigation has not identified any link between railway operations and the fire.”

“The wildfire remains under investigation by BC Wildfire Service. The RCMP are conducting a preliminary inquiry to determine the need for a parallel criminal investigation.”

Both CN Rail and CP Rail had earlier pledged financial support for Lytton residents in the wake of the fire. CN promised $1.5 million while CP Rail pledged $1 million.

A wildfire in the area was previously caused by the actions of a railway company.

Last year, CN was was fined $16.6 million in damages for causing a wildfire 10 kilometres south of Lytton in 2015. The Cisco Road wildfire destroyed 2,200 hectares of land. An investigation concluded that rail workers cutting a line near the tracks sparked the blaze, which burned for four months and resulted in several evacuations.

Many residents are not satisfied with the results of the investigation.

Linda Nixon, whose house suffered minor damage in the fire, said she was “not happy” with the outcome of the investigation. She said many residents still felt that CN had played a role in the fire - to the extent that some locals who work for the railway company had been ostracised by townspeople.

"But it's not their fault, they're just working for CN. It wasn't them, it was the train," Ms Nixon said.

Ms Nixon is currently staying with her brother, who lives three miles outside of Lytton and whose house was also spared from the blaze. Despite her home being mostly still intact, she said she had only been allowed to go back to collect items "a couple of times" and had no idea when she would be allowed to move back in. Ms Nixon was "one of the lucky few who has insurance", but many others did not and were faced with mounting bills to rebuild homes and replace belongings.

She said residents were growing frustrated at the lack of information over the town’s rebuild and communication from the mayor and authorities was scarce.

“No one is talking to us. I feel lost. Totally lost,” she said.

Edith Loring-Kuhanga, whose home was reduced to “powder” in the blaze, says she is “very frustrated and disappointed, but not surprised” by the outcome of the investigation.

The school administrator for the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, a First Nations school in Lytton, escaped the fire and helped set up the muster station at the local high school for evacuees. She is now staying between an AirBnb used by doctors and nurses in Lillooet and her family home in Victoria.

“I stay at the AirBnb whenever I can book it. Sometimes I get a week out of the month, sometimes I get 10 days, it depends.”

She said the British Columbia government and federal government should now “step in” because “sitting on the sidelines is not the answer”.

She said during a village meeting on Wednesday night, residents asked the Lytton village council about the $30,000 in donations that was raised in the wake of the fire, which still had not been distributed to residents.

“It’s been 106 days. My biggest concern is that we have a village council that doesn’t even have the capacity to distribute $30,000 in donations – how are they going to make a decision to rebuild our town?”

She also said that many of the town’s residents were aged over 75 and many were struggling to find long-term accommodation and were effectively “homeless”.

In a statement, the RCMP said their investigation was “progressing”. In reference to potential criminal proceedings being filed by the RCMP, they said: “The police investigation continues to assess if there is possible criminality and we are mindful of the other investigations that are focussing on determining the cause and origin and looking at compliance or regulatory impacts.”

The statement said “significant progress” has been made in the investigation, using witness statements, interviews and the collection of physical and digital forensic evidence, which continues to be analysed.

They did not have a timeline on how much longer the investigation would take.

“However it remains a priority and we continue to work on the outstanding tasks. The RCMP respects the importance of completing a thorough and comprehensive investigation, given the devastating impacts,” the statement said.

Hildebrand said on Thursday that the TNRD was not in a position to question the TSB’s findings and strong opinions in the community or on social media were “not for me to weigh in on”.

However, he said he was “very encouraged” that the wildfire service and the RCMP were still “investigating and looking at other options”.

“That all being said, the TNRD is working closely with Emergency Management BC and will continue to support the village and the surrounding areas through our resiliency centre and will help in any way we can,” Hildebrand said.

“I am sure the residents of Lytton and Lytton First Nation are looking for some closure and information around this horrific situation and I hope that comes out at some point.”

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