A Lytton, B.C., resident wants a judge to approve a class-action lawsuit against Canada’s two major railway companies, saying their equipment could have sparked the fire that destroyed her home and most of the surrounding village.
Carel Moiseiwitsch, who lived in the community for 10 years, is looking to sue Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway – alleging the heat or sparks of a passing freight train caused, or contributed to, the most destructive blaze in the Lytton area during June’s record-setting heat wave.
In a statement of claim filed with the B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday, she alleges the disastrous Lytton Creek fire started independently of two other nearby wildfires when it began in Southwest Lytton near the CN Rail crossing. The fire went on to torch historical landmarks, buildings and most of the village’s 150 registered properties.
The lawsuit, which needs court approval to be certified as a class action, accuses the railway companies of operating a train in conditions they ought to have known were unsafe, of failure to inspect for – or to install – spark arrestors, and of failure to communicate or implement a fire plan. CP owned the locomotive and railcars, while CN employees operated the train.
“These companies have poor practices in terms of public safety, they’re very negligent, and they have to be found culpable,” said Ms. Moiseiwitsch.
The RCMP, BC Wildfire Service and Transportation Safety Board are still investigating the cause of the fire. A statement from CN spokesperson Thomas Germann said the investigation remains ongoing, and a statement from CP also pointed to the investigation, adding that “any conclusions or speculation regarding any cause of the Lytton fire or contribution factor remains premature.”
“Based on our review of train records, including contemporaneous video footage, CP has found nothing to indicate that any of CP’s trains or equipment that passed through Lytton caused or contributed to the fire,” it said.
CN issued a statement on July 6 saying it had investigated video posted on social media showing a train as having caused the Lytton fire, but “concluded the video does not show a train in or near Lytton at the time of the fire in the village.”
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada deployed an investigator to Lytton on July 9 to gather information, develop a timeline of events, conduct rail and locomotive inspections and gather occurrence reports from CP and CN.
To date, however, the TSB has not received the reports from the railway companies related to the Lytton fire, confirmed TSB spokesperson Marc-Antoine Brassard in an email Wednesday.
Ms. Moiseiwitsch wants the railway companies to repay people and businesses for all their personal properties lost and to be compensated for physical and psychological damages incurred. Her 1.5-storey, three-bedroom house was destroyed by flames, as well as her paintings and art collection, she said. She also lost most of the inventory of the information technology and graphic design company that she co-owns, she said, and her pet cat died. She has since relocated to Vancouver with her partner and is living in a family member’s studio apartment.
“It’s flexible, but it’s not a real living space,” she said. “It’s kind of like camping, we still have nothing.”
According to the lawsuit, the B.C. government had notified CN and CP of extreme risk of wildfires, which was at the highest possible rating, according to the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System. It states that barely an hour before the Lytton Creek fire gained force, a freight train operated by CN Rail combusted in Boston Bar, approximately 39 kilometres south of Lytton.
CP Rail is headquartered in Calgary, employs 12,000 people, and owns approximately 20,000 kilometres of track in Canada and the United States. CN Railways has twice the number of employees, and is the country’s largest railway in terms of revenue and the size of its network.
Jason Gratl is one of the lawyers hoping to represent the plaintiffs, should the suit be certified.
“This lawsuit should be a wake-up call to CN and CP that they must modify their practices, both in terms of what they haul and when and how they haul it,” he said. “They are in a position to destroy people’s lives if they do nothing about it.”
Mr. Gratl said this lawsuit is the first such claim to be filed in relation to the Lytton fires, but that there are many precedents in Canadian law from which to draw.
“Operating motor vehicles under unsafe conditions has long been recognized as a basis for liability in Canada, that includes operating motorcycles or cars or trains when it’s unsafe to do so. This is obviously one such situation ... one we must learn from.”
With files from the Canadian Press
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