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Despite the believed ignition point of the fire that devastated the Village of Lytton, B.C. being within a tight radius of train tracks, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada announced Thursday that it had found no evidence tying the late-June blaze to railway activity in the area.
The TSB report comes after months of speculation, as well as a proposed class action lawsuit against CN and CP railways which alleges a train, loaded with coal, that was owned by CP and operated at the time by CN may have contributed to the fire.
The federal agency had previously announced the investigation in July, stating on its website that “initial investigations conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and BC Wildfire Service into the fire’s ignition point raised concerns regarding the potential involvement of a freight train.”
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As part of its investigation, TSB officials reviewed video, conducted interviews, examined the train and tested samples collected from the side of the tracks, the train engine’s exhaust stack and maintenance equipment.
“We have found no evidence to conclude that the Lytton fire was started by railway activities in the area and consequently we have concluded our investigation,” TSB Chair Kathy Fox said during a news conference.
“But we’re willing to reopen it if we get compelling evidence,” she added.
Jason Gratl, one of the lawyers representing Carel Moiseiwitsch, an artist who lost her home in the fire and the representative plaintiff in the proposed class action lawsuit, has taken issue with the TSB’s investigation.
In a statement to The Narwhal, he said: “TSB policy requires a ‘very high effort,’ ‘high investment’ Class 2 investigation where death and significant property damage are present. Contrary to its own policy, TSB pursued a ‘low effort,’ ‘low investment’ Class 5 investigation without fire expertise on the investigative team, that failed to interview any eyewitnesses and was unable to draw inferences from the fact that the fire started within 5 feet of the centre of the track.”
“We are undeterred by this low effort sophomoric TSB report,” he said.
In a statement to The Narwhal, however, Fox explained that because the TSB was not able to link the Lytton fire to train activity, “there was no ‘transportation occurrence’ strictly speaking and, therefore, (the TSB) has no jurisdiction to investigate further.”
She said the criteria mentioned would only come into effect if there was a transportation occurrence.
BC Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in a statement that he wants to “reassure residents that both the RCMP and the BC Wildfire Service are working actively on this investigation. It is critical that the investigation process is afforded the time needed to ensure it is thoroughly completed.”
James Carmichael, the lead TSB investigator, said during the press conference that BC Wildfire had identified a location within five feet of the centre of the train tracks that is believed to be where the fire started.
“But we still didn’t see anything conclusive that showed that the train or rail operations had started the fire,” he said.
Carmichael has worked with the TSB since 2008 and has been a key investigator in a number of transportation investigations for the agency in Western Canada. He previously worked for several railway companies, including serving as a mechanical supervisor for both CN Rail and CP Rail for four years prior to joining the TSB.
According to the TSB report, the train passed through the area where the fire is suspected to have started about 18 minutes before the fire was reported.
“It was travelling at 25 mph (40 km/h) with low to moderate throttle to maintain speed,” the report says.
BC Wildfire did not confirm to The Narwhal that it had identified where the fire started.
In a statement, CN said the company remains “available to assist other authorities with their investigations and we will continue to work with residents of the Lytton area as they recover from this devastating fire.”
CP reiterated its comments from this summer that it had reviewed train records and relevant video footage and “found nothing to indicate that any of CP’s trains or equipment that passed through Lytton caused or contributed to the fire.”
Jackie Tegart, the Liberal MLA for Fraser-Nicola, which includes Lytton, said she thinks many people will be concerned and extremely disappointed that the TSB investigation did not identify the cause of the fire and the community is likely to have a lot of outstanding questions.
She also noted that two more investigations into the Lytton fire are ongoing. “So, this isn’t the end,” she said.
While the TSB has concluded its investigation into the Lytton fire, Fox noted that there are two TSB investigations ongoing into fires linked to railway activity in B.C. and Alberta. Those investigations offer an opportunity to examine the issues of railway operations during extremely hot, dry weather and the measures in place to prevent them, she said.
Meanwhile, three and half months after the blaze tore through Lytton, the community is still reeling and frustrated over how it’s been handled.
Cassandra Melanson said she had less than 15 minutes to pack up her dog, Freya, and a few belongings as the fire bore down on her home.
By the time she left, the flames had already started to engulf her rental house.
“As I was driving away, I couldn’t even put my seatbelt on, I was vibrating,” she said.
For almost two months Melanson lived in a hotel, unable to cook her own food.
“It became really hard to eat and feel healthy in that situation,” she said.
Every so often she would have to go back to evacuation services to get her hotel stay extended, all the while looking for a new apartment to rent.
“I got to the point where I was like, ‘I don’t care where I end up, I just need a place to sleep that allows my dog’,” she says.
Today, she is living in a shared house in Kamloops, on leave from her job as a Kindergarten and Grade 1 teacher and paying roughly $1,000 more in rent than she did in Lytton.
For three weeks she slept on a hammock until she could get a bed. Now she’s working to finish her insurance claim before replacing the rest of her furniture.
At the same time, she’s wondering what will happen to the community she grew to love after moving to Lytton 11 months before the fire.
Melanson isn’t the only one with frustrations or questions about the future of Lytton.
Melanie Delva and her wife Erin Aleck spent most of the summer living in a campground after narrowly escaping the fire that engulfed the village. By the time they learned of the blaze, their house was already on fire.
Despite losing their home, they haven’t received any housing support from the provincial government, Delva said.
“We couldn’t stay and camp anymore because we didn’t have a winterized RV or anything, we didn’t have heat, we didn’t have hot water,” she said. “We needed to get some housing help and it was the Lytton First Nation that helped us with that.”
Today, Delva and Aleck, who is Nlaka’pamux, are both on leave from their jobs and renting an apartment on T’eqt”aqtn’mux (Kanaka Bar Indian Band) land.
“This was all on our own steam and all on our own funds,” said Delva.
“There hasn’t been a single step of this whole journey that’s been okay, that hasn’t been traumatic,” she said.
“I’m educated, I’m white, I have medical benefits, I have a lot of privilege and it’s this bad for me,” she said, “and the reason I keep talking to reporters is because I need people to know how much worse it is for Indigenous folks because racism in this country is very real.”
Delva said she wants to see the provincial government step up support for those affected by the Lytton fire.
“Why couldn’t they build us an emergency shelter in 90 days? Why couldn’t we be together as a community to heal?” she said.
While a spokesperson for Emergency Management BC said in a statement that “successful wildfire recovery is led by the communities impacted,” Tegart and a number of community members have called for more provincial support for Lytton’s recovery.
Short, medium and long-term recovery plans are needed so people “can start planning their lives and getting back to the community to start planning to rebuild,” Tegart said. “But there is a real gap in communication.”
She noted for instance that some people, still living in hotels and relying on emergency support services, were left scrambling at the end of September, wondering whether their supports would run out on Oct. 1. While those supports have now been extended to Nov. 30, she’s concerned the same thing could happen at the end of next month.
“These are people who are under extreme stress, who have lost everything,” she said. “Surely we can do a better job of trying to ease every opportunity we can, where they may be stressed and anxious.”
“The government should have been in there the day after to say ‘How can we help?’ — not only with money but with expertise,” she said. “We talk about temporary housing, who can lead that better than someone from BC Housing?”
“I’m not saying that you put aside locally elected people, I’m saying that you support them with the expertise that’s needed,” she said.
The Narwhal requested comment from the Village of Lytton and Mayor Jan Polderman but did not receive a response by publication.
In a statement, Emergency Management BC spokesperson Jordan Turner said the department is still providing emergency support to people and families who have lost their homes or are under evacuation order.
At the same time, the department is “supporting the development of interim housing solutions to ensure people are supported and safe through the winter months” and has funded the Fraser Basin Council to work with the Village of Lytton on a recovery plan.
The government has also contracted the Canadian Red Cross to connect people affected by wildfires with various supports.
Residents of Lytton, however, are still calling for better communication and more community involvement in recovery planning.
“There’s a long road ahead but they need to know that someone is leading the charge,” Tegart said. “People need hope.”
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