LYTTON (NEWS 1130) – The majority of Lytton has been burned by a fast-moving wildfire, and a number of locals are missing.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth says the majority of homes and infrastructure in the village have been destroyed, including the RCMP detachment and local ambulance station.
“This has been a very difficult day, and the days ahead are going to continue to challenge us,” Farnworth said. “This fire moved aggressively and continues to do so, burning through the extreme conditions that have resulted from the record heat in the area.”
Farnworth says in addition to the damage done, some residents have not been accounted for.
“Their location is currently being investigated by the RCMP.”
Mission—Matsqui—Fraser Canyon Member of Parliament Brad Vis first announced on Thursday that 90 per cent of the village had been destroyed by flames.
“The situation is very, very dire. There’s firefighters coming from across the province to assist with the growing fires in the region. The situation is still unfolding,” Vis explained.
“Our immediate priority right now is to ensure that all residents of the Village of Lytton, Lytton First Nation, other surrounding First Nations communities, who had to flee on a moment’s notice, are reporting to the Thompson-Nicola Regional District Emergency Operations, because the headcount of all people impacted is still ongoing.”
Vis says there’s anywhere between 1,200 to 1,500 people in the vicinity of the village who are impacted by the fire.
“The latest information I received from the TNRD is that the headcount is ongoing, and that’s why they’re asking myself and other officials to make that message clear: if anyone’s listening and they’ve gone to Boston Bar, they’ve gone to Kamloops, they’ve gone to Ashcroft, or Cache Creek, or Lillooet, that they’re reporting to one of the two emergency centres in Lillooet or Merritt.”
Farnworth echoes the importance of Lytton residents registering with emergency officials if they’ve made it out safe, urging people to do so with the online evacuee registration tool.
Vis says the Red Cross will be providing details on assistance soon. However, he admits the situation is unfolding quickly. He adds the provincial and federal governments are in close contact.
“The situation is just such in real time. For those of you who don’t know … Lytton is the confluence of the Thompson River and the Fraser River,” Vis explained. “It’s in a wind tunnel. It’s also the holder of the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. Combine extremely dry weather, and combine a natural wind tunnel. You’re in a really, really dangerous situation.”
He notes it’s “all hands on deck” right now to get the fire and others in surrounding areas under control.
Quick action, support
With hundreds of people forced to leave Lytton in moments, Premier John Horgan says it’s a reminder that people need to be alert and aware of what’s happening around them.
“There was little or no time to warn the community — in fact, it was the mayor himself that got the first whiff of challenge and within minutes … the city was engulfed,” Horgan said, commending the quick actions of Mayor Jan Polderman and everyone else involved in the quick effort.
“Following the directions of local governments and first responders is absolutely critical in situations like this, and I encourage all British Columbians as we continue to go through what will be a hot, dry summer, to pay attention, make sure when you hear a public service announcement that you understand that it could be directly affecting you … listen to what’s going on in your community.”
Horgan vowed the province’s support to help the people of Lytton rebuild “when the smoke clears.”
The premier says he made that commitment to the mayor and community.
Horgan has also spoken with the prime minister, who he said reinforced the federal government’s support if needed.
“And of course to offer any services that British Columbia needs as we go through the next number of weeks and potential months of intense firefighting,” Horgan said.
The province has spoken with Ottawa about the potential for military resources to be available. While officials say they believe the current manpower is enough, they have inquired about additional aircraft resources.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s spoken to Horgan about wildfires and says the Minister of National Defence and Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness are working with provincial ministers “to ensure that all federal resources necessary are available to British Columbia.”
The RCMP has called in additional resources and started to deployed officers and support staff to active wildfires in the province including Lytton.
“The numbers are changing regularly, but it would be safe to say that as of this afternoon upwards of 100 additional officers have been or will be deployed,” a release reads.
RCMP officers are also working with wildfire crews to deal with evacuation alerts and orders.
Wildfire expected to grow
The wildfire was an estimated 8,000 hectares in size Thursday morning, and expected to grow even more.
Wind gusts are expected to hit 50 to 70 km/h on Thursday. Those gusts, the high heat, dry conditions, and the risk of thunderstorms are only adding to concerns as crews continue to battle the fire.
“With the conditions in the forecast … it is concerning and we do expect to see that further growth, both on this fire in Lytton and in other wildfires of note in the area and those that ignited overnight,” said fire information officer Jean Strong with the BC Wildfire Service.
The fire, which is still being referred to as the “K71086” fire near Lytton, continues to evolve.
Editor’s note: The embedded video contains some strong language.
Another look at the devastation in Lytton, these people jumped in their car and made it out. You can see the flames spreading, the dry conditions and the smoke. Just horrific @NEWS1130 pic.twitter.com/4uOf40yj1b
— Tarnjit Kaur Parmar (@Tarnjitkparmar) July 1, 2021
The fire prompted the quick evacuation of the entire community Wednesday afternoon, as flames quickly approached. Video shows the fire catching some people off guard, forcing them to drop everything and leave at a moment’s notice.
‘We didn’t have time to grab nothing’
Tomy Sam says he and his family were told to leave at a moment’s notice.
“We didn’t have time to grab nothing, just what we’re wearing right now. We lost our home, and my mother lost her home too,” Sam, who made it to Merritt, told NEWS 1130.
He says other family members were also forced to leave their homes, being displaced in communities across the region.
“It just happened so quick. We didn’t even have time to think. We tried to save the house but there was no time. We just jumped into the vehicles and we started getting everybody in,” Sam recalled, adding he and his loved ones raced to his 92-year-old mother’s house to get her out.
Lytton has been grappling with record-breaking heat. The village recorded the highest temperatures ever in Canada on three consecutive days, the highest being 49.6 degrees on Tuesday.
Sam says the community was just started to see some relief with a slight drop in temperatures and some wind coming in.
“It didn’t work. As soon as the wind came in, the fire started and just [it] was gone,” the Lytton resident said, adding he and his family drove through the flames and smoke to get to safety. “The flames were coming across both sides of the highway.”
Autumn Walken, who is from the Nicomen First Nation just outside of Lytton, doesn’t think her house is standing.
“I’m sad. I’m not very hopeful because we know just how quickly that fire was spreading,” she said.
Robert Leitch, a village councillor, says it’s been hard to sleep.
“Right now, what’s going through my mind is going through the evacuations. Like, how fast did this happen? Could I have grabbed that? What if I grabbed this? A lot of things go through your mind, but when it’s happening, just grab and go,” he said.
He’s not sure if his house is still standing. While he has some hope, he says another part of him is trying to come to terms with the idea that it may have been destroyed.
Been spending the day talking to those who made it out of #LyttonBC when the community went up in flames. Robert Leitch is a village councillor. He says it’s hard sleeping because he’s been replaying everything that happened. @NEWS1130 @CityNewsVAN pic.twitter.com/3z1kL8pIbY
— Monika Gul (@MonikaGul) July 1, 2021
A heat warning remains in place for the area, with temperatures expected to hit the mid 30s.
An evacuation order issued by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District covers 111 properties. Many people have fled Lytton for neighbouring communities, such as Merritt, where an evacuation centre has been set up.
Steve Preisler, who was on his way to Cache Creek to look at a piece of land, was among the people taken to Spences Bridge.
He tells NEWS 1130 the situation escalated quickly.
“A lot of people, they hadn’t even spoken to their wives or husbands, they don’t know what happened to them. People say, ‘I don’t know what happened to my cat,'” he recalled, noting many people lost their homes.
“One guy was wearing gumboots, big rubber boots, and it’s 40-something degrees, and I said, ‘those are pretty hot boots to wear,’ and he says, ‘I was at the creek and they evacuated me and I had to go,'” Preisler added, noting many people weren’t dressed or prepared to travel.
“Other people had no gas in their vehicles. I was one of those people.”
Preisler eventually made it to Merritt, where an evacuation centre has been set up at the Emergency Social Service building (1721 Coldwater Avenue.) Similar centres have been set up in other communities, and many people fleeing Lytton have made their way to neighbouring areas, such as Cache Creek, Lillooet, and Boston Bar.
Another centre has been set up in #Merritt, which has emergency accommodation and support. One man I just spoke to, who was driving through #Lytton when fire broke out says “A lot of people hadn’t even spoken to their wives or husbands. They don’t know what happened to them.” pic.twitter.com/uepLnX3v7w
— Monika Gul (@MonikaGul) July 1, 2021
Scenes out of the community have been devastating. Video and photos show trees on fire, flames tearing through buildings, and smoke filling the air, darkening the skies and giving them an orange glow.
Meanwhile, several GoFundMe campaigns have been set up to assist the people of Lytton. One has already surpassed its goal of $10,000.
A GoFundMe has now been setup for those in Lytton after their community was devastated by a fast-moving wildfire. 90% of the town has been burned and critical infrastructure has been extensively damaged.https://t.co/BF8e5bybdX
— Amanda Wawryk (@AmandaWawryk) July 1, 2021
BC Wildfire Service assisting
Due to where the fire started, the BC Wildfire Service is assisting local crews, who are the lead on this file.
“The BC Wildfire Service is working very closely with the Lytton Fire Brigade by diverting our resources where possible to respond to the incident,” explained Strong. “But the Lytton Fire Brigade remains the lead agency as this fire started within their fire protection area.”
She says BCWS crews are working on the northwest flank of the fire to try to secure the community. Strong notes they’ve “seen some success there by ground crews and helicopters,” however, she admits weather conditions and terrain remain a challenge.
The #BCWildfire Service is responding to K71086 in #Lytton. At this time this is an evolving situation and we are working with the Lytton Fire Brigade.
This is an agency assist as the Lytton Fire Brigade is the lead agency on this fire.
— BC Wildfire Service (@BCGovFireInfo) July 1, 2021
Other partner agencies have also been called in to help crews fight this fire. A second fire, the George Road fire, is currently burning south of Lytton and is an estimated 350 hectares in size.
Both fires are currently considered to be out of control.
The BC Wildfire Service cannot confirm at this time what may have caused the “K71086” fire.
Key infrastructure in Lytton destroyed by wildfire
BC Hydro has confirmed there’s been extensive damage to its stations caught in the path of this fire.
However, at this time, the utility says a lot remains unknown.
“Due to the fire activity and heavy smoke, obviously, it’s not safe for our crews to enter the impacted area to assess the damage, so we don’t really know exactly what it looks like right now. And we have to basically wait for fire officials to provide our crews with clearance. We don’t expect that to happen for maybe the next several days,” Mora Scott with BC Hydro said.
She says Hydro is shutting down necessary grids to make sure firefighters can access whatever areas they need. Scott adds BC Hydro is in close contact with fire and emergency crews to ensure they are supported.
“We currently have about 600 customers in the area without power. But as you know, the town has been evacuated,” she explained.
CN Rail says in a statement to NEWS 1130 it’s evaluating how its systems have been impacted by the fire. However, the company says safety of residents is its top priority.
“The events occurring in Lytton are deeply distressing and we at CN are very concerned for the safety of residents and the impacts of this devastating fire,” the statement reads. “We have reached out to local elected officials to offer our assistance. We want to offer our support to the people of the First Nation of Lytton and we are committed in assisting this community during this tragic event.”
With unconfirmed reports suggesting the fire may have been caused by a passing train, CN says an “initial review of our operations” shows “protocols were followed.”
It is offering its full cooperation to help identify the cause of the fire.
-With files from Tarnjit Parmar, Lisa Steacy, and Sonia Aslam