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Lytton residents capture the early moments of the fire that would go on to devour the town of Lytton, B.C. on June 30, 2021.Handout

British Columbia’s Premier is defending his government’s handling of the wildfire that destroyed most of the village of Lytton and killed two people, as nearby First Nations continue to raise concerns about the emergency response and aftermath.

Leaders of the Lytton First Nation and the group to which it belongs, the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, have criticized what they say was poor communication that hampered evacuation efforts after the fire broke out last week. They have accused the province of not doing enough to help their evacuees.

Leaders of both groups have also objected to the resumption of rail traffic in the area amid widespread speculation among residents that a train may have sparked the fire in tinder-dry conditions. The tribal council has threatened rail blockades if their concerns are not addressed.

Premier John Horgan told a news conference his government reached out immediately to the leadership of the Lytton First Nation after the fire and has worked to ensure candid communication.

“It’s a crisis situation; people are going to be unhappy,” he said. “It’s not a failure of the government. It is a failure in a time of great stress and anxiety. There’s no fault to be apportioned. The resources are there.”

First Nations in British Columbia threaten to block rail traffic over fire recovery fears

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He said there was little else emergency officials could have done to improve the evacuation, because of how quickly the fire was moving. As for rail traffic, he said that’s an issue for the federal government.

“I’m confident that we can find a way forward,” he said of the threats of rail blockades.

Jordan Turner of Emergency Management BC said in a statement the tribal council and other First Nations are included on all co-ordination calls, and that the agency is working with the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society. The province’s Indigenous Relations Minister was reaching out to affected First Nations on Tuesday, the statement said.

The fire broke out last Wednesday after a record-setting heat wave pushed temperatures in Lytton to nearly 50 C – the hottest weather ever recorded in Canada. Nearly the entire village was destroyed, as were parts of the Lytton First Nation. The fire marked a harsh beginning to a wildfire season that has already been one of the most destructive in recent memory.

Investigators have yet to point to a specific cause of the fire, but they have said it appears to be related to human activity, rather than lightning. The Transportation Safety Board has said it hasn’t been notified of any related incidents.

Experts have said the heat wave that is fuelling wildfires across B.C. is a demonstration of the way climate change will damage ecosystems and communities in coming years. The heat has been linked to hundreds of deaths in the last week.

Chief Janet Webster of the Lytton First Nation, whose residents were forced to evacuate as the fire moved into the community and damaged homes and buildings, said the province has not been responsive to her nation’s complaints. She is especially concerned that Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. has resumed rail traffic through the Lytton First Nation’s territory.

She said rail blockades are a real possibility given the level of anger in her community.

“My people are very upset – they were shocked to see everything that’s going on,” Ms. Webster said in an interview, referring to the resumption of CP’s rail service.

Ms. Webster said the provincial government should have immediately declared a state of emergency. She also said both the province and the federal government should have been quicker to devote more resources to fighting the fire, such as by bringing in the military. She wants all levels of government to ensure the First Nation has the resources to rebuild what was lost to the fire.

She said she is also worried about the wildfire risk from allowing rail traffic in the area. She doesn’t want anyone, including railway employees, on the First Nation’s territory before its own people are permitted to return to survey the damage from the fire.

Ms. Webster said it was her understanding that CP had restarted rail service to clear a backlog caused by the fire.

“I phoned CP and told them: ‘No. After this, you are not going through until we get everything settled,’” she said.

CP spokesperson Salem Woodrow confirmed the company’s mainline rail operations resumed Monday. She said in a statement the company was working with First Nations, as well as local, provincial and federal governments, to restore rail service. She did not address any of the concerns raised by the Lytton First Nation or the tribal council.

Canadian National Railway also has a track running through Lytton, but it was heavily damaged by the fire. CN declined to comment about the status of its operations or respond to the concerns raised by First Nations leaders.

Transport Canada spokesperson Sau Sau Liu said in a statement the department is in contact with the Lytton First Nation and is committed to reconciliation – although the statement said it is up to the railway companies to ensure measures are in place to prevent wildfires. Transport Canada has not imposed any additional requirements on rail operations in the Lytton area.

There were 206 active fires burning across B.C. as of Tuesday evening, including three considered fires of note, either because of their size or their proximity to people or buildings. Hundreds of properties across the province are under evacuation orders and hundreds more are under alert to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

More than 700 wildfires this year have burned about 92,000 hectares of land, which is already more land burned than in all of 2019 and 2020 combined and more than three times the 10-year average for this time of year.

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