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A Year After Lytton Fire, Residents Wait for Answers and Action

The BC Wildfire Service says a report into the fire that destroyed the community is not expected before September.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 29 Jun

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

One year after a wildfire tore through the village of Lytton, destroying most of the town, residents are still waiting for answers about what sparked the blaze.

The June 30 wildfire levelled the town in minutes, reducing 90 per cent of its homes to ashes. Two people were killed.

Despite widespread speculation that a train started the fire, a BC Wildfire Service report isn’t expected for at least several months and, once finalized, is unlikely to be made public.

Jennifer Thoss says the lack of movement in rebuilding the community keeps the memories of that June day fresh in her mind.

“I think it’s because there’s been so little progress,” Thoss said. “It’s very difficult to get past the anger part of the grief process.”

Thoss had spent the weekend moving back into her Lytton home before returning to her teaching job in the Lower Mainland to wrap up the school year. It was the last day of classes and she had planned to return to Lytton for the summer the following day.

But one year later, she said the community is still under an emergency evacuation alert and residents aren’t permitted to access their properties, which they are told are toxic as a result of the fire. She continues to grapple with insurance claims and pay a mortgage on a home that doesn’t exist.

“[It] is absolutely infuriating to residents that it’s under emergency orders still... yet, there’s no feeling of urgency,” said Thoss, who owns several properties in the community, one of which is uninsured and another that’s underinsured.

“I haven’t even begun to address the rebuild on the fully insured because there’s no bylaws. There’s no official community plan,” she said. “It’s all very much in flux.”

While haggling with insurance companies has slowed Lytton’s rebuild — with claims related to the fire estimated at $78 million — Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman said there are also uninsured residents whose “future depends” on a report into the fire’s cause, as it would allow them to seek damages.

“If someone else is responsible for the fire, obviously, they’ll be going after that individual or company,” he said.

But even the mayor doesn’t know when the report will be finalized.

“They don’t talk to me about the investigation,” he said. “What they have said is they would notify me before an announcement is made.”

In emails to The Tyee, BC Wildfire Service said it is “working actively” with RCMP on the investigation, with BCWS focused on determining the fire’s origin and cause. It suggested checking back about the report in September.

“It is critical that the investigation process is afforded the time needed to ensure the investigation is thoroughly completed,” a spokesperson said. “Wildfire investigations can be complex and may take weeks, months or even years to complete. The BC Wildfire Service works closely with other agencies to ensure high-quality results. Information about the cause of a wildfire will not be released until an investigation is complete.”

The Tyee also reached out to RCMP for an update on the investigation. RCMP Cpl. Madonna Saunderson said she did not have information on the investigation or a timeline as to when it would be completed.

When asked if the report would be made public, Saunderson said “I have no knowledge of this matter, so I couldn’t comment at all.” When pressed, she directed questions to the BC Wildfire Service.

While the fire’s cause will be made publicly available by the BCWS once the investigation concludes, complete Fire Origin and Cause Determination reports are only available through freedom of information requests, the service said, which can take months and now come with a $10 filing fee.

The BC Wildfire Service previously suggested The Tyee file a freedom of information request in advance of the report, saying it could expedite the process. The Tyee filed the request in March, but the province closed the file two months later, saying “the report is still being finalized.” It suggested making a new request when the report is complete.

“The report should be finalized soon and we recommend reconnecting with us in a few months to check and resubmit a request if necessary,” a senior FOI analyst with B.C.’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services wrote. “If we hear back before then, we will let you know and we would also note that this report may be heavily redacted.”

The Tyee reviewed more than a dozen investigation reports, all released through previous freedom of information requests, from wildfires that have occurred over the past decade.

They showed that, in most cases, fieldwork to determine the cause of a fire wrapped up within days of the fire’s start date and reports, which were often hundreds of pages, were all released within a year. The average length of time to complete the reports was just over six months.

In the case of the 2014 Soda Creek Fire, fieldwork wrapped up after one week and a 500-page report was finalized late November the same year, a little over four months after the fire started. It determined that worn brakes on a train operated by CN Rail caused 13 ignition points near the railway tracks and burned about 100 hectares.

The railway through Lytton has also been suspected as a source of last summer’s devastating fire, with witnesses describing seeing a train on fire near Lytton in the hours leading up to the blaze.

It was during the height of B.C.’s devastating heat dome and the Lytton area had consistently set Canadian temperature records, reaching temperatures up to 49.6 C on June 29 — the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada.

While the Transportation Safety Board of Canada announced in early July that it was deploying an investigation team “following a fire potentially involving a freight train in Lytton,” railway companies quickly pushed back. On July 16, Canadian Pacific Railway issued a statement calling the comments “irresponsible and misleading.”

When the TSB reported in October that it had found no evidence that a train had started the Lytton fire, despite determining the ignition point was within two metres of railway tracks, residents expressed outrage and disbelief.

Thoss said there remains a “general belief that the trains did cause the fire.” But she’s happy to wait out a thorough investigation in order to get to the bottom of the fire’s cause.

“I think we all kind of know that there’s going to be something coming out eventually, that the TSB risk report was not thorough,” she said. While the TSB investigation didn’t interview local residents, Thoss said it’s encouraging that police have been speaking with witnesses in the area.

“Just as the TSB report came out, the RCMP were actively interviewing people,” she said. “I think there’ll be a lot coming out in the wash.”

In the meantime, residents are restricted from accessing their properties as the village is considered toxic and needs to be cleaned up. That process was to begin in early March, with the province helping to fund soil remediation, but has been slow to get underway.

“I can’t understand it myself, when basically the taxpayers of this province are assisting the insurance companies in the cleanup costs,” Polderman said, adding, “It’s the insured properties that have been the hold up.”

The current goal is to have cleanup completed by late September so that Lytton’s rebuild can begin. But services, such as power, will also need to be restored, which could further cause delays.

“The village is working hard at getting its infrastructure in order before the rebuild starts,” Polderman said.

He added that it finally feels like the community is getting some traction, with $21 million announced by the province last week and $77 million provided by the federal government the week prior.

He said the community has brought in a “trendsetting” new building bylaw, which includes requirements like rebuilds having a fire-resistant building envelope and limiting fuel sources, such as firewood and shrubbery, near houses.

“We’re looking to become as net zero and as fire resilient as possible,” he said.

While he said other communities that have faced similar destruction — such as Slave Lake in 2011, Fort McMurray in 2016 and Paradise, California, in 2018 — have taken years to rebuild, he acknowledged Lytton’s cleanup is taking longer than expected.

“The reason for that is we’re a heritage site and we’re considered toxic. Most other communities that have gone through a fire have some public infrastructure left, while we didn’t have any,” Polderman said.

But Thoss blames the local government for the slow pace of redevelopment, saying the new fire-smart requirements are creating extra red tape at a time when residents just want to go home.

“I’ve got tenants in essentially motel rooms [that] still have nowhere to move back to, and yet there’s no sense of urgency amongst our decision-makers or elected leaders,” she said.

“People are really, really depressed.”  [Tyee]

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