Residents of Lytton, B.C., are experiencing a “feeling of helplessness,” says its mayor, in the aftermath of a report on the cause of the wildfire that destroyed their town over the summer.
On Thursday, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) ruled out train activity as the spark of the mammoth blaze, raising eyebrows among witnesses and those familiar with the region’s history of trains and fires.
“A lot of unanswered questions as to why locals were not given a chance to put in their knowledge on the situation,” said Mayor Jan Polderman.
The massive wildfire, first detected on June 30, destroyed roughly 90 per cent of Lytton’s infrastructure. It killed two people, injured more, and displaced hundreds.
The TSB did not interview any Lytton residents as part of its investigation, but described the work it conducted over three months as “extensive.”
On Friday, lead investigator James Carmichael said the TSB relied on RCMP interviews of Lytton residents and witnesses, since it wasn’t called in to investigate until almost 10 days after the fire.
“The interviews conducted by the RCMP in the days following were probably going to be more valuable to us than to try and go out and get somebody to talk about it after they’ve had two weeks to think about everything that had happened, been evacuated from their homes,” Carmichael explained.
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“We just felt they would be more accurate interviews.”
The fire began after several days of record-breaking heat in Lytton.
According to the TSB report, a Canadian Pacific coal train with 157 cars passed through Lytton 18 minutes before the fire was first reported, in the suspected area of the fire’s origin, but no conclusive evidence was found to suggest it was the cause.
Some current and former residents of Lytton believe a video posted to social media appears to capture that train and flames together. Trains have been known to spark fire in hot weather in the past, they add.
“There’s a lot of local people who feel the trains are responsible,” said Polderman, referring to the June 30 fire.
“That being said, there has to be clear evidence one way or the other, and I’m waiting for that evidence to be brought forward.”
Polderman said he’s concerned that TSB investigators on the case did not have sufficient expertise in wildfires, and like some of his constituents, he questioned the investigation’s thoroughness.
Carmichael said the TSB can contract wildfire experts if needed, but there “didn’t seem to be any reason,” as the BC Wildfire Service had its own fire-origin investigators on the case.
Both the BC Wildfire Service and B.C. RCMP are still conducting their own examinations, and Polderman said he looks forward to seeing the results.
“This is only one of three investigations and we just need to wait to hear what the experts have to say.”
A group of Lytton residents will gather at the Lytton First Nation’s gas station on Sunday to express their dissatisfaction with the TSB report.