Train did not spark fire that destroyed Lytton, B.C., report says

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VANCOUVER –


Suspicions that a train was at least partially to blame for a fire that consumed most of a B.C. village this summer have been shut down in a just-published report.


The Transportation Safety Board of Canada made the results of its investigation public Thursday morning.


Despite the belief that the fire may have been tied to the railway that passes through Lytton, the TSB’s investigation found no link to railway operations.

 “We still didn’t see anything conclusive that showed that train or rail operations had started the fire,” said James Carmichael, the TSB’s Investigator-in-Charge.


In an outline of its investigation, the board wrote that a westbound Canadian Pacific (CP) train, operated by a crew from Canadian National (CN), was the last train to pass through the small Interior village before the fire broke out.


That train went through the area believed to be the fire’s origin 18 minutes before the fire was reported. But there have been no reports of anything that may have caused a fire, the TSB said.


No rail grinding or other track work took place in the area in the days before the fire, and no fire damage was noted on the train, which was held in Metro Vancouver until it was inspected.


A safety inspection conducted by Transport Canada at the request of the RCMP didn’t turn up anything of significance, nor did interviews with employees who’d been working in the area. Video from the train did not show any anomalies either, TSB investigators said.


Investigators also tried to obtain satellite images, but weren’t able to access anything taken around the time the train passed through Lytton.


“Therefore, unless new information establishes that a TSB reportable event occurred, no further work will be performed and no TSB investigation report will be produced,” the board wrote.


The case could be reopened, Chairwoman Kathy Fox said in a news conference Thursday, if compelling-enough evidence was brought forward, but for now, “that’s where our mandate ends.”


She said she would not speculate on what that evidence would be, other than that it would have to be substantive.


When asked why it took so long for the results to be made public, Fox said the investigation’s interviews, lab analyses and inspections took time, and described the process as “very comprehensive and thorough.”


These investigations can take as long as two years, so the timeframe is not unusual.

The local tribal council is disappointed with the investigation.


“I was promised by the government of Canada that we would have boots on the ground in the investigation process and they left us and went out and did the investigation without honouring that,” said Chief Matt Pasco of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council.


STILL UNCLEAR WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED


Members of the board did not say what they believe caused the fire, which is still under investigation by the RCMP and BC Wildfire Service. Mounties said in a statement after the report was released that the investigation is “active and progressing.”


The TSB was tasked with investigating whether a railway passing through the village had any connection to the fire, which followed days of record-breaking heat.


The temperature reached 49.6 C the day before the fire started, prompting the evacuation of the entire village. It was a record not only for Lytton but for the entire country.


The investigation was launched after evidence from the RCMP and BC Wildfire Service suggested the fire may have been sparked by a train.


It is unclear what that evidence may have been, though the RCMP said previously it was investigating two possible points of origin, and that one was a parking lot near a rail bridge in the village. 


At Thursday’s news conference, Investigator-in-Charge James Carmichael said that point is about five feet from the centre of the tracks. He said the point was determined by BCWS, and that he could not say how it was determined.


The other site, Mounties said back in July, was a site in Boston Bar. No further details were given on why the community about a half-hour drive away was considered a possible origin site. It may be tied to video posted to social media of what appeared to be a smoking train, but police have not confirmed that.


VIDEO OF SMOKING TRAIN


Nothing has been confirmed about the evidence that may have hinted at railway connections in the first place, but a witness told CTV News he’d captured video of what he believed to be a rail cart full of lumber on fire, and a bridge that appeared to be on fire, about 10 to 15 kilometres away that day. 


CN Rail responded to it after it was posted on social media. CN said the video did not show a train in or near Lytton at the time of the fire, and that the smoke came from a different fire, about 45 kilometres south, which was already burning. 


The video was not mentioned in the TSB report, but Carmichael addressed it during the news conference that followed.


He said the video was captured near Boston Bar, but it wasn’t part of the Lytton investigation because “it was not anything to be investigated.”


“We did look at some photographs and came to the determination that (the lumber) was not on fire, it was just plastic packaging that had singed off.”


He was questioned further, and asked about other social media posts including a video of a train fire in Boston Bar. He said investigators did look at it and couldn’t determine whether the train had caught fire, or if the fire was on or underneath the bridge.


“We didn’t feel that they were associated with each other,” he said, noting they were not the same trains.


The other incident hadn’t been reported to the TSB, and was only noted because it had been posted on social media.


NEXT STEPS


Before anything was determined, the chairwoman of the board said even if there was no connection, the case was a “wake-up call.”


Speaking to The Canadian Press in July, Fox said it may prompt railway companies to look into what precautions are needed, especially during times of extreme heat and dry conditions. 


She said the board would first work to determine what happened before taking any action or making recommendations, but that those recommendations could include increased surveillance and clearing of right of ways.


Given the results of the report, it seems no recommendations will be given.


Still, in the days after the fire the federal transportation ministry ordered CN and CP to step up fire-prevention efforts.


CN and CP must ensure a 60-minute response time to any fires detected along rail lines running through Lytton, then-minister Omar Alghabra said in a statement on July 11. 


He pledged the federal government would support those affected by B.C.’s wildfires as well as the one in Lytton.


According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the fire caused about $78 million in insured property damage.


Without waiting for the results of the investigation, a woman who lost her home and business in the Lytton fire filed a proposed class action lawsuit over the summer, arguing two Canadian railway companies were at least partially responsible for it. 


Another residents, Dean Adams has only been able to briefly return to his home and property.


“It’s just destroyed,” he said


“There’s nothing left. Not even a wrench or a tool that’s survivable,” he told CTV News Vancouver.


Pierre Quevillon also lost his home and narrowly escaped the flames. His dogs did not make it.


“When I turned my head around I could see all that smoke and flame coming towards me,” he recalled.


Unable to move his vehicle, Quevillon says he only escaped because a driver picked him up as they fled the fire.


Jackie Tegart, the MLA for Fraser-Nicola, says local residents are going to be disappointed by the TSB report.


Tegart also says that people are anxious to get into recovery mode.


“Lytton is still behind fences and security. People still don’t have full access to their properties and we are 106 days in since the fire,” she said.


“Residents have been scattered across the province and they are anxious to come home.”

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