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Regulator Rules Out Train as Cause of Lytton Wildfire Without Interviewing Locals

A decision by Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) to close its investigation into the devastating fire in Lytton, B.C., after concluding that there is no evidence to support concerns that train activity was the cause, has left residents feeling silenced and mistrustful. 

While the RCMP and the B.C. Wildfire Service are continuing their own investigations into the cause of the June 30 blaze—which took 10 minutes to incinerate the entire Fraser Canyon village—The Toronto Star writes that the TSB considers its work to be done.

Speaking at a media conference the day her organization’s report was released, TSB Chair Kathy Fox said that while the TSB cannot be 100% certain a train was not involved, the lack of evidence justifies the decision to move on.

Much to the dismay of Lytton residents, the TSB chose not to consider video footage posted online showing “sparks from a train passing through the area.” A 157-car CN coal train passed through the village, westbound, some 18 minutes before the fire started, but on examining the train, the TSB “found no evidence of hot bearings or ‘other potential fire-creating causes’.”

A CBC report confirms that the fire did start very close to the centre of the CN Rail track that runs straight through the village: “within five feet,” according to the TSB.

TSB investigators also conducted simulations to see if a train could produce sparks, and examined video evidence. And while the investigators chose not to interview Lytton residents who say they witnessed flames and smoke in the village area before the fire grew, they did talk to railway employees.

Describing the report as problematically “thin,” Lytton resident Judith Urquhart, who lost her home in the fire and is now staying in nearby Ashcroft, told the Star she is also troubled by its speedy conclusion, noting that she and her fellow Lyttonites expected the TSB investigation to take as long as two years. 

The TSB “said it would reopen its investigation if ‘compelling’ new evidence comes forward, but would not elaborate on what kind of evidence would meet that bar,” CBC says.

A separate CBC report notes that the TSB report has left many Lytton residents feeling deeply mistrustful of the review process. Lytton resident Alfred Higginbottom of the Skuppah First Nation said his own refusal to accept the TSB’s conclusion is widely shared. 

“Nobody is really going to accept that finding at all, in my view anyways, and from numerous people that I have talked to—they don’t accept it either,” he told CBC. “It’s not only me. It’s the community and the population around here in general.” 

Condemning the failure of the TSB to let Lytton residents testify, Higginbottom said that what should have happened was respectful involvement of “the community and the people in the process so they understand the process and have a clear understanding—not just give results four months later.”

Both the Thompson-Nicola Regional District and the Lytton First Nation have publicly expressed a belief that the fire that destroyed Lytton may indeed have been sparked by train activity. 

Many Lytton residents are also concerned that the process of rebuilding their community is taking too long, CBC writes. Speaking at a recent council meeting, Edith Loring-Kuhanga, school administrator at Stein Valley Nlakapamux School in Lytton, expressed particular concern for the well-being of elders who lost their homes as winter approaches. 

“I worry about our elders, our seniors who continue to be displaced and homeless,” she said.