The wildfire that tore through the small British Columbia village of Lytton, levelling most of the community and killing two people, is believed to be human-caused, the B.C. Wildfire Service said.
The agency is still investigating what exactly sparked the blaze, but said it appears it started in the community and spread from there.
“It’s suspected human,” B.C. Wildfire Service spokeswoman Erika Berg said in an interview. “The specific cause, that’s still under investigation, but there’s a fair certainty that it was started within the community, which then spread to the bush.”
The disaster in Lytton on Wednesday followed an intense heat wave that shattered temperature records across Western Canada and jumpstarted what is already one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in recent memory. There were more than 170 fires burning across B.C. as of Sunday. Residents of about 700 properties have been forced to flee their homes, while those at another 1,300 properties were on alert to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
There have already been 633 wildfires in B.C. so far this year that have burned about 83,000 hectares of land. That is already more land burned than in all of 2019 and 2020 combined, and more than three times the 10-year average for early July.
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The two deaths in Lytton added to the toll from the heat wave, which has been linked to hundreds of unexpected and sudden deaths across the province. The scorching heat has also amplified warnings about an increase of extreme weather because of climate change.
The fire in the B.C. town, which started a day after temperatures in the area reached nearly 50 C – the hottest ever recorded in Canada – forced a frantic evacuation that left residents without any time to grab their belongings. There are an unspecified number of people still unaccounted for by emergency officials, although the RCMP said they did not have any active missing-persons reports.
The B.C. Wildfire Service, the RCMP and provincial coroners entered Lytton on the weekend to confirm the two deaths. The wildfire service and the police force also conducted work on site to determine the cause of the fire.
RCMP spokeswoman Dawn Roberts said at a media briefing that officers went to a location within Lytton on Saturday related to that investigation, although she declined to provide more details about where specifically that was or provide any details about a potential cause.
There has been widespread speculation among residents that sparks from a passing train might have ignited the fire. CN Rail and CP Rail both said they would assist the investigation, but each declined to comment further.
Federal regulations require rail operators to report incidents, including fires, to the Transportation Safety Board. Agency spokesman Chris Krepski said Sunday that the TSB had not been notified about anything related to the Lytton fire.
Investigators found the bodies of the two people who died where they were reported missing by a family member.
Officials urged people to report to the police or Red Cross if they escaped the fire but haven’t already checked in, and Sergeant Chris Manseau said anyone who believes someone may be missing after the fire should contact police.
“Nobody has actually reported anything to the RCMP,” Sgt. Manseau said. “If that’s the case, we need to know immediately.”
He did not know when it will be safe for residents to return to their homes.
“Our investigation is ongoing at this time, but preliminary findings at the scene suggest the decedents match two deaths reported by their family member,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We have not received any additional reports of death related to the Lytton fire. Our special investigations team is no longer at the scene.”
About 250 people live in Lytton and another 1,500 to 2,000 First Nations members live nearby. The fire engulfed the village with little notice. Residents evacuated to Lillooet, northwest of Lytton on Highway 12; north on the Trans-Canada Highway to Spences Bridge, then southeast to Merritt; or north on Highway 1 to Cache Creek, then east to Kamloops.
Evacuees and First Nations leaders have complained about a lack of co-ordination in the response, which left residents struggling to track down information in the hours and days after the fire. That has meant some people who were forced to flee have been shuffled between communities that have been overwhelmed by the influx of evacuees.
Roy Webster of the Lytton First Nation was at the reception centre in Merritt, located about a 100-kilometre drive east of Lytton, with his teenage grandson and another family they are related to.
“We slept in our vehicle in Lillooet,” said Mr. Webster, while waiting for his turn to register for a room. “Then we had to go to Kamloops, but we had to go 12 miles outside of town for a hotel room. Then we were told it was okay to come home, but we got here and they said no.”
He was waiting to find out if there was any room in Merritt.
The Shulus Arena, which is on the territory of the Lower Nicola Indian Band, was packed with people on the weekend and overflowing with donations. There were tables heaped with clothing, water, pet food, packaged food and diapers; officials there said they had to turn away two semi-trailers that were filled with donations on Saturday night because there was no room.
Matt Pasco, chair of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council (NNTC), which includes the Lytton First Nation, said while determining the cause of the fire is important, trying to prevent the next disaster, by empowering Indigenous people, is more pressing.
“Regardless of what caused the fire, all the possibilities that could cause that fire can cause the next one,” he said. “And we need remedies, we need action plans, that are driven by the [First] Nations, driven by the communities, to be able to combat those things.”
His organization is aware of roughly 700 people who have been put up in hotels after the Lytton fire. The NNTC, in the early hours of the crisis, co-ordinated and paid for accommodations, but now the province has stepped up, he said.
Some people have told him they have been unable to locate friends or family members. Mr. Pasco is encouraging them to file missing-persons reports with the RCMP, but said some First Nations people may not feel comfortable speaking with the Mounties.
The tribal council is still putting together a list of residents to compare against data the group and others compiled as they assist evacuees. But the process is slow – the Lytton First Nation, for example, lost its band office in the blaze, Mr. Pasco said.
Evacuees are also dispersing, making it difficult to track and support residents.
“A big concern right now is really managing the movement of the displaced community members,” he said. “We’re asking them to stay put. But people are not comfortable and they are worried, so they get to moving around.”
The Lytton fire, which continued to grow on Sunday, is among hundreds of fires burning the B.C. landscape. Of the 174 active fires on Sunday, 13 were considered “of note,” either because of their size or proximity to people and buildings.
Those include the Sparks Lake and Durand Lake fires near Kamloops; another fire that had prompted the evacuation of hundreds of properties in the rural area of Deka Lake, about 100 kilometres northwest of Kamloops; and the Merry Creek fire, which had forced evacuations in some areas of Castlegar in southeastern B.C. earlier in the week, although those orders had been lifted.
While lightning had started dozens of new fires on the weekend, with hot weather and lightning expected to continue starting new wildfires in the coming days, the situation had plateaued somewhat. There were four fewer fires burning on Sunday than a day earlier, and 600 fewer properties under evacuation order compared with Friday.
The forecast for the coming days includes high temperatures that are expected to remain in the mid- to low-30s. And while some areas, such as Kamloops, are expecting rain, that will also come with lightning that will undoubtedly start more fires.
“As we’ve seen in the last number of days, [the rain] will likely not be very measurable and will not have much of an impact on slowing the potential of new starts,” Cliff Chapman of the B.C. Wildfire Service said.
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