Dozens of families forced to flee their homes as a catastrophic fire devastated a small village in B.C.’s Fraser Canyon are now working to find loved ones scattered in the evacuations, while emergency officials urgently try to account for everybody in the community.
More than 1,000 people living in and around Lytton, B.C., northeast of Vancouver, were forced to leave with little notice Wednesday. They raced out of town as smoke and flames virtually decimated the entire community in one of the most destructive fire emergencies in recent memory.
The province said Thursday the loss includes “most homes” and structures in the village, as well as the local ambulance station and RCMP detachment. The local member of parliament said 90 per cent of the village is gone.
Online community groups were filled with posts from people desperate for information about family, friends and pets left behind. The challenge will be trying to confirm where residents went and connect them with their families, officials said.
“We are receiving calls from people looking for family and loved ones as well, and it’s really hard because of power outages and cellphone towers being down, but we’re working on that,” Scott Hildebrand, chief administrative officer with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, told CBC News early Thursday.
“One of our challenges right now is that we had people leave in all different directions.”
B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the RCMP is investigating the location of any residents who are unaccounted for, but could not provide an exact number.
In a statement, Lytton RCMP say it is currently unsafe for anyone to enter the town and additional 100 officers have been deployed the assist investigation efforts.
“The situation is being continually assessed and when safe to do so we will be entering the area to conduct a formal search, specifically for any injured or missing people,” said Dwayne McDonald, commanding officer of the B.C. RCMP.
Federal Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told CBC that the federal government is also co-ordinating with the B.C. government on how provide support.
“We’ll also look at what future support is going to be needed for the rebuild itself,” he said.
‘The town burnt down’
Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman signed the official evacuation order at 6 p.m. PT on Wednesday. He said the village was overcome by flames before officials had the chance to co-ordinate a place for people to go, so many just started driving.
“The town burnt down,” Polderman said, his voice hoarse as he spoke from a family member’s home in Maple Ridge, B.C.
“I noticed some white smoke at the south end of town and within 15 to 20 minutes, the whole town was engulfed in flame.”
Video captured by residents rushing out of town showed numerous buildings on fire. Charred rubble was all that remained of the town’s main street.
WATCH | Officials trying to track down evacuees:
The community of Lillooet, north of Lytton, took in dozens of evacuees through the evening. A district representative said Thursday they had an official count of 188 people, but the number was likely higher as many evacuees had not formally registered.
Other evacuees sought refuge in the nearby community of Boston Bar. At least 52 people went to the reception centre in Merritt to the east.
MP Brad Vis, who represents Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon, said in a Facebook post that 90 per cent of the village was lost. He said he heard from constituents Wednesday who lost their homes and couldn’t get a hold of family.
I noticed some white smoke at the south end of town and within 15 to 20 minutes, the whole town was engulfed in flame.– Jan Polderman, mayor of Lytton, B.C.
“What I’ve been told is that the situation is dire and the authorities are trying to account for everyone,” Vis told the CBC late Wednesday.
Vis and Polderman urged evacuees to register with an evacuation centre to help authorities with their count.
“So we can look for the people, if there are any people, that didn’t make it out alive,” Polderman said.
The Lytton First Nation is also still trying to account for all of its members. The province said evacuees should register online at the Evacuee Registration & Assistance site.
Those looking for loved ones should call the police nearest to them for guidance, Farnworth said.
Lytton’s Main Street, before and after yesterday’s devastating fire. <br><br>(Photo from a Chilliwack Fire Department member) <a href=”https://t.co/OaoRvg1ch3″>pic.twitter.com/OaoRvg1ch3</a>
‘Everybody in Lytton has lost everything’
Finding accommodation for evacuees has also proven difficult. The fire broke out on the eve of the first major long weekend of the summer, with British Columbians travelling again under loosened pandemic restrictions already having booked many rooms in town.
“We are struggling with capacity,” said Hildebrand.
Bonnie Nixon lives in the Gladwin trailer park a few kilometres north of Lytton. She grabbed some clothes and her medication before jumping into a neighbour’s car to “get the hell out of there.”
“[I was] crying, crying, crying. Fell asleep crying. Then you wake up this morning and here we are,” said Nixon, sitting outside an evacuation centre in Merritt, where she can stay for at least seven days.
“Everybody in Lytton has lost everything, my sister included. She had a house down there. Gone.”
Conditions in Lytton were dangerously hot, dry and windy on Wednesday. The area endured the highest temperature ever seen in Canada on three consecutive days during an extreme heat wave last week, topping out at 49.6 C on Tuesday.
“The conditions have been unprecedented in terms of dryness and heat,” said Erika Berg, a fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service.
She said ground and air crews had responded to the fire throughout the night and would continue their work on Thursday.
WATCH | Smoke and flames engulf town of Lytton, B.C.:
Officials suspect train caused fire
Hildebrand said officials have a suspicion as to how the fire started. “It’s still not confirmed, but it appears a train may have sparked the blaze,” he told CBC News.
B.C. Premier John Horgan said Thursday he’d heard the train theory “anecdotally” but cautioned the investigation is ongoing.
CN Rail did not report any issues to the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) related to a train incident in Lytton, the agency said Thursday.
“The TSB has not received any reports that the fires in Lytton, B.C. were started by a train,” said spokesperson Chris Krepski.
Later Wednesday night, residents of another 87 properties to the north of Lytton were ordered to leave home as well.
Winds of up to 71 kilometres an hour pushed the fire north into the community as of 7 p.m. PT on Wednesday, according to CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe.
On Thursday, Farnworth said the fire was still burning “aggressively” and had grown to 90 square kilometres in size.
Another spokesperson for the regional district said hundreds of people in First Nations communities may have also been ordered to evacuate, but it was hard to get in contact with their local governments.
Firefighters were already dealing with at least two other wildfires in the area when the latest fire tore through Lytton.
The George Road wildfire, burning south of the village, was last estimated to be 350 hectares at 7:59 p.m. PT Wednesday, and the nearby Conte Creek fire was estimated at 1.5 hectares.