Coroner says two feared dead in wildfire that ravaged Lytton, B.C.

Coroner says two feared dead in wildfire that ravaged Lytton, B.C.

LYTTON, B.C. — British Columbia’s chief coroner says preliminary reports suggest two people have died as a result of the wildfire that ravaged the village of Lytton, B.C.

Lisa Lapointe told a news conference Friday that a team is standing by to conduct an investigation in order to confirm the deaths, but it’s not yet safe to enter the area.

There are hazards preventing the RCMP from accessing the Lytton area to search for people who are unaccounted for, Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said. The Mounties are reassessing those hazards on an hourly basis, she said, acknowledging that some residents were still searching for loved ones while encouraging people to register at evacuation centres. 

The RCMP is working to reunify families and determining who may be missing before launching any missing person investigations, Shoihet added.

Pader Brach, executive director of regional operations with Emergency Management BC, said structure fires leave behind toxic smoke, chemicals and gases that create unsafe conditions until they dissipate.

Officials have worked with the Red Cross to set up a family reunification call centre as more than 1,360 homes were under evacuation order in several different regions on Friday and about 950 others were on alert, Brach said.

Brach did not have an estimate of how many people from the Lytton area remain unaccounted for but said the Red Cross is recording that information.

It’s a particularly challenging time to manage the evacuation of so many people, Brach said, noting some public venues are being used as COVID-19 vaccination clinics or cooling centres as heat warnings remain in place across eastern B.C.

Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for the BC Wildfire Service, said crews had been on “red alert” in Lytton due to record-breaking heat, but there was “very little” they could do given how fast the fire spread on Wednesday.

“Those folks that responded from BC Wildfire Service also live in the community … and likely many of them as they were assisting with the tactical evacuation of the community also had to witness their own home and livelihood going up in flame.”

Chapman said the extreme heat has created conditions for a “significant spread” of wildfires burning across B.C., including 70 new fires that started Thursday.

“We are looking over the next seven days to kind of continue in the trend that we’re in currently, which will see temperatures above seasonal, with a bit more influence of wind than we saw when we were under the heat dome, which again will challenge our firefighting efforts,” Chapman told the news conference.

Storm systems brought about 12,000 lightning strikes Thursday, with many hitting near communities in the southeast, Interior and southern Cariboo regions, he said.

The wildfire service is working with the support of the federal government and the Canadian military, Chapman said. He estimated that between 2,500 and 3,000 people were actively fighting fires on the ground and by air on Friday.

Roughly 790-square kilometres have burned across B.C. so far this wildfire season, which is a large area for this time of year, Chapman said.

“Generally speaking, we’re three weeks ahead of our drying cycle, on an average season,” he said.

Recent moisture in northern parts of B.C. has helped with fires there and allowed the service to shift resources to the south, Chapman said.

Earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had spoken with B.C. Premier John Horgan and Lytton First Nation Deputy Chief John Haugen, and would also speak with Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman.

Federal ministers pledged to support B.C.’s wildfire fighting efforts.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government has established a forward operating location in Edmonton, with one Hercules aircraft and two Chinook helicopters as well as 350 troops. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the federal government has been preparing for the wildfire season for the past few weeks.

Blair said there have been anecdotal reports about a train being involved in the fire. He said the government will look at the issue of trains and the potential for starting fires.

“We are investigating all possibilities,” he said. “Transport Canada is working with B.C. officials and the rail companies to address the concerns that have been raised,” he said, adding that he would not speculate on the cause of the fire.

Telus Corp. said Friday it has deployed emergency communications equipment to support local authorities and emergency crews dealing with the wildfire. Telus is the main wireless provider for the Lytton area, and B.C. officials have said a lack of cell service has made it difficult to determine if anyone remained in the village.

The roughly 1,000 people who managed to escape from Lytton will find very little left when they return, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has said.

Troy Clifford, president of the union representing ambulance workers in B.C., said Lytton had one ambulance and a station, both of which were lost in the fire. The village has a rotating staff of 25 to 30 people, who are all safe, he added.

The wildfire service listed 143 active fires across the province Friday afternoon.

The province said in a release that it was making disaster financial assistance available for residents and First Nations communities affected by wildfires since June 16.

The funds are to help community authorities cover disaster-related losses not covered by insurance, such as wildfire damage to public infrastructure.

The Lytton Creek wildfire that scorched the village was listed as out of control late Friday afternoon and was about 68-square kilometres in size.

To the northeast, Kamloops faced a wildfire threat Thursday night, triggering an evacuation order that was later rescinded. The fire was classified as under control on Friday. It was ignited during weather that produced several lightning strikes.

An update posted to the city’s website Friday said no structures were lost and residents could return home. Crews continued targeting hot spots, it said, and residents were asked to reduce irrigation to conserve water to support their efforts.

The Merry Creek wildfire also prompted the Regional District of Central Kootenay to issue an evacuation order for more than 30 properties about eight kilometres south of Castlegar. As of Friday afternoon, that fire was listed as 15 hectares in size and burning out of control. Several other areas in Castlegar were on evacuation alert.

Another 153 properties were ordered evacuated Thursday as a wildfire burned near Sulphurous Lake, north of Kamloops and east of 100 Mile House. The Deka Lake fire was classified as burning out of control across 200 hectares Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 2, 2021.