Residents of Lytton, B.C., got a first glimpse of the charred remains of their community on Friday, at the same time that the Transportation Safety Board announced an investigation into the cause of the fire, saying new information pointed to the possibility a freight train set off the inferno.
The safety board said in a statement the information came as a result of investigations by the RCMP and BC Wildfire Service into the cause of the fire.
It is not yet known which rail line is linked to the train in question, it said, and neither Canadian Pacific Rail nor Canadian National Rail has filed any occurrence reports related to the Lytton fire.
Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra had ordered all train traffic through Lytton to halt for 48 hours, effective immediately, while residents were taken on escorted tours through the village.
Residents only had minutes to leave the community on June 30 as flames tore through with “ferocious speed,” an early statement from the Village of Lytton said. Two people died and several others were hurt.
Shortly after residents saw the community for the first time, media followed in another bus.
Blackened, discoloured pine trees are the first indication of the blaze, their needles bent north to the will of the wind and fire.
Debbie Sell, emergency operations centre officer for the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said the trees show which way the fire sped through.
“The fire started at the south end of town but then it travelled north,” she said, pointing to the trees.
Sell described the area as “eerie” where there is no sound of birds or insects, and the heavy smell of burned wood hangs in the air.
Once white picket fences are now burned, lying along charred and blackened sidewalks. Most homes and businesses in the community are recognizable only by their foundations. Twisted metal, skeletons of shops and blackened cars with burst windows continue for blocks.
But the St. Barnabas Anglican Church and the post office remain intact.
“The post office doesn’t look like anything ever happened,” Sell said. “It’s sitting right in the middle of town and it’s perfectly fine.”
Fires don’t take a straight path, she noted.
“They’ll just move, and it can just be that one place has green around it,” Sell said.
“Maybe the grass is green, and things are not combustible around it. Maybe roofs are tin. They are not combustible either. It moves and shifts, and sparks go.”
The statement earlier this week from the Village of Lytton said there are extreme challenges in the rebuilding process. There are no electricity, sewer or water services, and the infrastructure that hadn’t been “incinerated” was too unsafe to use.
More than 200 wildfires are burning in B.C. as a recent heat wave and parched conditions combined to raise the fire risk in many parts of the province to high or extreme.
Lightning also continued to challenge wildfire crews in the province, but the BC Wildfire Service reported some progress on at least one of the 15 most threatening fires in the province.
But the wildfire service said slightly cooler weather and modest rainfall earlier in the week helped crews build guards around the entire perimeter of a roughly three-square-kilometre fire that forced evacuation orders and alerts near Durand Lake, southwest of Kamloops.
Strong winds this week near Lytton also spawned a spot fire on the west side of the Fraser River, but the wildfire service said crews responded aggressively.
It said firefighters, including 40 recently arrived from New Brunswick, are making progress laying guards and protecting buildings along other flanks of the fire that destroyed Lytton.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said fires across B.C. have devastated many communities and families.
“At this critical juncture, it is imperative that we all listen to the voices of Indigenous leaders and engage meaningfully on a path forward that respects their needs and priorities, while ensuring rail safety and security,” Miller said in the Transport Canada statement ordering the two-day halt to trains on tracks between Kamloops and Boston Bar.
Sell said the residents were “emotional” after seeing what remained of their homes and were unavailable for interviews.
“I mean it’s quite devastating to go in and look at,” she said. “It was very important for it to be their moment. And their moment as a community. So, that’s why we kept it as just their community together.”
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