No links have been found between a train passing through Lytton, B.C., and a fire that decimated the town 20 minutes later, according to a Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigation.
In a report released Thursday morning, investigators say they combed through several pieces of evidence, including tracking down the suspect train at a Burnaby rail yard.
Investigators say they looked for hot bearings and burnt brake heads, anything that could have triggered a fire. They also tested samples of a coal-like substance found near the rail tracks and compared it to buildup from the locomotive exhaust stacks. In the end, they found no anomalies and the samples had “little in common.”
Interviews with railway employees, videos from the train, as well as data recorded from the train and tracks also found no signs of fire. Satellite images of the ignition were not available, noted the TSB investigation.
James Carmichael, TSB investigator-in-charge, said the TSB reviewed video posted online ostensibly showing trains on fire that day, but they were found not to be linked to the Lytton fire. The TSB did not conduct any interviews with the residents of Lytton, said Carmichael.
“Based on all of the information we've collected from multiple sources, we have no evidence to support that railway operations caused or ignited the fire,” said Kathy Fox, chair of Canada's Transportation Safety Board, in a press conference.
She added: “If we get new information that is convincing that links railway operations to the Lytton fire, we will reopen the investigation.”
Carmichael said the BC Wildfire Service has determined the fire was ignited within five feet of the centre of the track, and that it, along with the RCMP, are still running parallel investigations into the cause of the fire.
TOWN BURNS AFTER RECORD HEAT WAVE
The TSB launched an investigation into the fire on July 9 after RCMP and the BC Wildfire Service noted a train rolling through the town at around the same time the inferno started.
Eighteen minutes before a fire was first spotted west of Lytton, a train operated by a CN crew passed down the tracks travelling at roughly 40 kilometres per hour, its throttle at a low to moderate speed.
Neither CN nor CP reported a fire to the Transportation Safety Board, but both companies said there is no evidence that indicates their trains triggered the fire.
Whatever the cause, strong winds spread the wildfire. It quickly consumed the town made tinder-dry after two consecutive days of record-breaking temperatures. It was so hot that Lytton set an all-time Canadian record of 49.4 C.
Cassandra Melanson, who lived at the edge of town, remembers coming home around 5 p.m. Within half an hour, the fire ignited her living room, and she fled town in her car.
She remembers seeing people walking by on the street staring at the fire engulfing her home.
“I tried yelling to them, like 'You guys gotta go,’” she said in an earlier interview with Glacier Media. “They see it, there's just no sense of evacuation or urgency because there was no evacuation alert.”
At 6 p.m., the town’s mayor issued an evacuation order as the fire spread to several buildings, ultimately decimating up to 90 per cent of the town.
Resident Edith Loring-Kuhanga was doing interviews on Zoom when she got the call to evacuate.
An administrator at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, Loring-Kuhanga rushed up to the facility about five kilometres out of town to set up a muster emergency station. In the end, she estimates 200 people sought shelter there as the fire tore through the town centre.
Not one of those people, she told Glacier Media, has since been contacted by TSB investigators.
“I’m obviously very disappointed and frustrated,” Loring-Kuhanga said after hearing of the TSB report Thursday.
“If you are going to go to a scene of an accident, do you not talk to the witnesses? They didn’t interview one resident. What does that say?”
LAWSUITS LAUNCHED AGAINST RAIL COMPANIES
In the end, two people died due to the fire and the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates the wildfire caused about $78 million in damage.
A proposed class-action lawsuit was filed in a B.C. Supreme Court in August alleging Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways caused or contributed to the wildfire.
Last week, a second lawsuit was filed in a B.C. Supreme Court in Kamloops against the two major rail operators and the federal government.
The civil claim, filed Oct. 7, alleges the fire in Lytton was “sparked as a result of a train or trains” owned and operated by Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., Canadian Pacific Railway Company and/or Canadian National Railway Company.
The claim was filed by Christopher O’Connor, whose house was destroyed in the fire, and Jordan Spinks, a member of the Kanaka Bar Indian Band, who lost his job as a care aide at Spintlum Lodge, an assisted-living facility that closed after the blaze.
It alleges Canada’s railways have known for more than 100 years how dangerous train traffic can be in times of extreme heat.
What the Transportation Safety Board’s ruling does to the pair’s court action is unclear, with Spinks declining comment when reached Thursday by Glacier Media. An email and phone message left with the plaintiffs’ lawyers were not returned before this story was posted.
Neither of the lawsuits' claims have been tested in court.
IS IT TIME TO RETHINK RAIL OPERATIONS DURING EXTREME HEAT?
It’s not clear how the TSB’s findings will impact the two proposed class-action lawsuits. But at least one legal expert says the devastation that happened in Lytton has wider implications for how trains operate in a world where climate change leads to hotter, drier summers.
So far this year, TSB has received 170 reports of fires either on a train or that lit brushfires on a rail right-of-way. That’s significantly higher than in 2020, when 79 fires were reported, as well as a recent five-year average of 56 annual fires.
“This fire spread the way it did due to an unprecedented heat wave that scientists say was virtually impossible without climate change, and which will be more common in the future,” said Andrew Gage, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law.
“Therefore, regardless of the causes of this fire, TSB, like all government agencies, needs to be figuring out how future heat waves will affect its operations — i.e., how trains should operate during future heat waves to help keep communities safe.”
The TSB is currently investigating two separate fires involving trains this year, one in Elko, B.C., and another in Calgary. Fox said trains can and do cause fires along rail lines, but they are usually put out by firefighters. As climate change and increasingly extreme weather lead to hot, dry conditions, she said the TSB will consider wider recommendations following the other two investigations.
“More needs to be done to make sure that we don't have a critical fire,” said Fox.
With files from Tim Petruk and Mike Howell