When Lytton resident Dennis Higgs received a text message early Wednesday evening warning of a fire in the B.C. town, he popped his head out of his trailer to take a look around. There was no sign of smoke. It was 6:17 p.m.
At 6:20, he saw a flicker of light through the blinds.
“I opened the door to see what was going on, and all I seen is this big black cloud of smoke coming,” Mr. Higgs said Friday in an interview in Kamloops, one of several neighbouring communities to which Lytton residents frantically evacuated that night.
“I jumped back into the trailer, put my boots on, looked back out again and fire was just igniting everywhere. There were 10- to 20-foot flames all around my trailer. I thought, ‘This is it. We’re done.’ "
By 6:26, Mr. Higgs was speeding away from the village, with no time to even pack his belongings.
“The embers were coming down like fireballs,” he said. “Just the heat from it – I didn’t even know it until last night, I have blisters on my arms from the heat.”
Within hours, the majority of the village about a three-hour drive northeast of Vancouver had been burned, including the city centre, ambulance station and health centre. Rail and highway infrastructure were also damaged. The village has a population of about 250 people, and is a community hub for another 1,500 to 2,000 members of nearby First Nations.
Images from the town’s main street show the community levelled overnight.
Cheryl Perrin, who lives in Shaw Springs, about 10 kilometres northeast of Lytton, says she was playing Scrabble with her husband on Wednesday evening, not realizing how serious the situation was.
“And then that’s when we heard the screaming,” she said.
With the fire moving at terrifying speeds, people fleeing Lytton had flooded into the property where she lives, the site of an old restaurant and truck stop.
“Cars just started piling in and people were getting out and screaming, saying the whole town was gone,” she said. “It was horrible. I will never forget that screaming, the sound of that anguish.”
B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said coroners were granted access to the burned village on Friday morning to investigate the deaths of two residents, but access was rescinded later in the day because of dangerous conditions.
“We understand the area is still unsafe to attend and will plan to access tomorrow,” she said in an e-mail.
In the days before the fire, Lytton and other areas of the province set heat records for Canada, creating deadly conditions and an extreme fire risk in what weather historian Christopher Burt called “the most anomalous heat event anywhere in the world since records began.”
Ms. Lapointe said the BC Coroners Service had received reports of an unprecedented 719 sudden and unexpected deaths throughout the province in a week, three times what would normally be seen in that period. She said the extreme weather is believed to be “a significant contributing factor.”
As of Friday afternoon, there were 136 wildfires burning in B.C., including nine considered “of note,” either because of their size or proximity to people and buildings. Seventy fires were reported on Thursday alone, largely because of significant lightning activity, and officials were expecting about the same number of new fires on Friday.
There were nearly 1,400 homes under evacuation orders across B.C. and another 950 under alert.
The risk from heat and fire in the province was further escalated by thousands of lightning flashes experts say were created through a combination of extreme heat, long-standing drought, a summer storm, and the wildfires, which created their own weather systems.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that he was thinking about British Columbians and those in Lytton, and was speaking to the Premier, Lytton’s mayor and the chief of the Lytton First Nation.
“We are here as a federal government, as partners, for whatever support people need, standing with the people of Lytton to rebuild and we’re continuing to work with the province to keep all British Columbians safe,” he said. A meeting of the Incident Response Group took place on Friday afternoon “to address the needs of communities in B.C. hit by wildfires and extreme weather, and take a look at what we expect might be a very hot, very dry summer with many wildfires.”
“We’re going to be there to support people getting through this incredibly difficult time of loss, of devastation, we’re going to be there to help rebuild,” he said. “… I will look at when and whether the time is right to go and see them.”
Denise Haugen got a call at her store, Suncatcher Crafts, on Main Street in Lytton at about 5 p.m. on Wednesday, and answered to hear her mother shouting from the receiver, “Get out of your shop now, the whole town’s on fire.”
“What are you talking about?” Ms. Haugen asked. “What fire?”
When Ms. Haugen looked out the window, she saw a wall of smoke coming straight toward her.
She says she raced home to get her husband, who started hosing down their backyard and an adjacent home owned by Ms. Haugen’s mother. Around the corner, Ms. Haugen’s daughter-in-law was rushing her four-year-old child and three dogs out of her burning house and into the family van.
The family headed for the highway, except Ms. Haugen’s husband, who remained behind trying to water down the properties with a hose until an explosion dropped a large hunk of metal onto the ground next to him.
“I guess it was part of a propane tank,” Ms. Haugen said. “That’s when he decided it was time to leave.”
The family initially fled to the local high school, but as the fire spread, they were forced to evacuate to Lillooet.
“We were basically running from the fire,” Ms. Haugen said. “As we were going, we could see the firefighters and other young men from town trying to save buildings, but the wind was just spraying water back at them. It was pointless.”
Dianne Miller, owner of Lyl’Towne Deli & Sandwich Shop, was working in her restaurant when someone popped their head in and yelled, “Get out now.” By the time she stepped outside minutes later, she could see her house was already gone.
“I just saw a giant ball of fire out there,” said Ms. Miller, who went first to a Lillooet evacuation centre, then to stay with family in the Lower Mainland. “I can’t remember much after that.”
John Haugen, Acting Chief of Lytton First Nation, said he’s preparing to declare a state of emergency for his community as fires in the region continue to grow in size and severity.
“It would give us more power in terms of evacuation orders and commandeering vehicles or services we need,” he said.
Mr. Haugen said most of his community has been accounted for, despite a chaotic evacuation that left families spread in all directions.
“We have so many people without homes,” said Mr. Haugen, who lost his own home to the blaze. “Some are still looking for places to stay. Over all, we just have so much to do and not enough people to do it.”
Matt Pasco, Chief of the Oregon Jack Creek Band and chair of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council (which includes the Lytton First Nation) said systemic shortcomings – namely, the lack of recognition of Indigenous jurisdiction – left residents vulnerable in the early hours of the fire.
“We received no help in the first eight to 14 hours of the emergency,” Mr. Pasco said in an interview Friday. Instead, Mr. Pasco, who owns a ranch near Ashcroft north of Lytton, said provincial officials called him in his capacity as a rancher to inform him about the processes in place to care for his cattle.
“I had nothing from the province as a chief about my people,” Mr. Pasco said. “I received more calls early from the province about my cattle than about [my] people. I made it very clear: I should not be receiving a phone call about my cattle as a rancher, ahead of a phone call as a chief about the people that are running for their lives.”
He said some citizens represented by the tribal council remain unaccounted for.
People fleeing the Lytton fire had three options: They could head northwest on Highway 12 to Lillooet, where locals opened up their community centre. Evacuees could also head north on the Trans-Canada Highway to Spences Bridge, then southeast to Merritt.
The third escape route – north on the Trans-Canada to Cache Creek then east to Kamloops – proved most difficult in terms of tracking evacuees and providing support. Mr. Pasco said First Nations’ request for a muster point in Kamloops went unanswered, and so he reached out to Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, the Kamloops band, which opened its powwow grounds for those in need.
The chief says provincial officials became more responsive as hours passed, and started to assemble a plan later in the afternoon. Various ministries, as well as representatives from the Premier’s Office, have since been in touch.
But Mr. Pasco says the fact that the province lacked a plan, while the tribal council had one, demonstrates that the council has the capacity to oversee these types of situations and take care of its citizens.
“We need to be taking a much bigger role in this,” he said. “The absolute long-term solution is Indigenous self-determination and self-governance.”
Pader Brach, the executive director of regional operations for Emergency Management BC, said the agency acted as quickly as possible when it was clear the fire required an evacuation, but that there was very little time. He credited the Lytton First Nation for marshalling a quick evacuation.
“The fire literally was in the first very early minutes [and] moved very quickly,” he said.
Mr. Brach said the emergency management agency had been working with the First Nations Emergency Services Society, the First Nations Health Authority and others to ensure evacuees had the resources they needed.
Mike Farnworth, the provincial Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor-General, said in a statement that despite the challenging situation, “early communication” with the tribal council and Oregon Jack Creek Band “didn’t live up to expectations.”
“I have made my expectations clear to the ministry and I have been assured that immediate steps have been taken to address gaps in protocols that contributed to this situation,” the statement said.
B.C. has requested help from the country’s military and from other provinces, through a national agency that co-ordinates the sharing of resources between jurisdictions.
The Canadian Forces is sending a Hercules transport plane and two Chinook helicopters to a forward operating location being established in Edmonton. They will join three utility helicopters already in the city, and the aircraft will help transport personnel and supplies, as well as evacuations of crews and residents when needed. In addition, 350 Canadian Forces members are on standby in Edmonton to be deployed if needed.
Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for BC Wildfire Service, said the initial focus of the request for military assistance is securing transport planes and helicopters to move people and equipment quickly in the area. Mr. Chapman said the province is already tracking well above an average year, and even ahead of the extremely destructive 2017 fire season.
All of the agency’s 17,000 staff were working, including 2,500 to 3,000 on the front lines fighting the fires.
Mr. Chapman says the unseasonably hot weather, including the record-setting heat wave of the past week, mean the agency is expecting a “long season.”
Christopher Burt, a weather historian with The Weather Company, an IBM-owned forecasting company, said so many heat records were set all over Western Canada last week that climatologists have yet to collate them all.
Previous to Lytton’s peak of 49.6 C, the hottest temperature on Canadian record was 45 C, logged in Saskatchewan 84 years ago.
“There’s never been any country in the world with such a long period of record-keeping that has ever broken its all-time national heat record by five degrees,” said Mr. Burt. “It’s unprecedented.”
Among the records was 39 C seen in Fort Smith, NWT, the highest temperature ever recorded at that latitude.
“And to think it’s all happening in June, rather than the hottest months of July and August, that’s just an anomaly on top of an anomaly,” Mr. Burt said.
In Alberta, the heat wave smashed records throughout the week, with temperatures reaching a little more than 40 degrees in some areas of the province on Wednesday.
Saskatchewan set 28 daily records Thursday, with Leader and Stony Rapids tying for the hottest temperatures of 38.5 degrees as the weather system continued moving east. Manitoba is expected to face the peak of its hot weather as part of the system on Saturday, with temperatures rising to the mid-30s in some parts of the province.
Justin Shelley, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, warned that the heat coupled with thunderstorms in the forecast was something to watch on the Prairies, and could pose a high risk for setting off other forest or grass fires.
Asked about the role of climate change in the British Columbia fires, the Prime Minister said there will be lots of work to do in fighting climate change, protecting people, and investing to adapt communities to the threats posed by the changing climates, and mitigate potential damage.
“Today our thoughts are mostly with families that are grieving, that are facing terrible loss. But of course, we also have to reflect on the fact that extreme weather events are getting more frequent and climate change has a significant role to play in that,” he said.
“We need to continue to commit ourselves every day to reducing our emissions, to showing global leadership on climate change, as we have by putting a price on pollution right across the country.”
With reports from Chantelle Lee, Janice Dickson
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