No evidence freight train set off wildfire in Lytton, B.C.: safety board

A man sits in a fire truck as the Lytton Creek wildfire burns in the mountains near Lytton, B.C., on Sunday, August 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

LYTTON, B.C. - The head of the Transportation Safety Board says there's no evidence that a freight train sparked a wildfire that destroyed the town of Lytton, B.C., and the agency is closing its investigation unless it receives new information.

Kathy Fox said the agency looked at factors like whether a fire could have been caused by overheated roller bearings, sparks from a braking train or within railcars to draw its conclusion about the fire that wiped out homes and businesses in the village on June 30. Two people died in the fire.

"All we have said is that based on information that we have collected from multiple sources, we have no evidence to support that railway operations ignited the Lytton fire," Fox told a news conference Thursday.

Both the RCMP and the BC Wildfire Service are continuing their investigations into the fire, which occurred during a heat wave that pushed the temperature to a record 49.6 C.

"Significant progress has been made in investigation with respect to witness statements, interviews and the collection of both physical and digital forensic evidence that continues to be analyzed," the RCMP said in a statement.

"The RCMP respects the importance of completing a thorough and comprehensive investigation, given the devastating impacts."

Fox said the safety board's investigation would only be reopened with new, compelling information.

James Carmichael, the TSB investigator in charge, said the board did not speak to any residents of the village after arriving there in July and did not get a response from the Lytton First Nation after concluding its investigation.

Investigators also viewed a video posted on social media suggesting a train may have sparked the blaze in the area, where both CN and CP railways have operations, but could not determine if the fire involved a train or whether the flames were underneath a bridge, Carmichael said.

"We have no actual evidence of the fire starting, the origin of the fire," he said.

Fox said the agency is conducting investigations involving a train near Elko, in southeastern B.C., and another that went through Calgary and believes fires may have been started by rail activity in those cases.

"We know that trains or rail activities can and do cause fire on a right of way," Fox said, adding most brush fires have not been significant and were quickly put out by a rail company or firefighters.

Because fires can be started by trains operating in extreme temperatures due to climate change, Fox said "more needs to be done so that we don't have a critical fire that is started by a train."

As of Oct. 5, the safety board received 170 reports from railway companies about fires involving trains, compared with 79 last year, she said. The five-year average between 2016 and 2020 was 56 fires.

The board's report issued Thursday says investigators confirmed with both CN and CP railways that there had been no rail grinding activities on the track and it found no signs of hot bearings, burned brakes or other potential fire-creating causes in a train that went through the community that day.

CP Railway said in a statement in July that it found nothing to indicate that any of its trains or equipment that passed through Lytton caused or contributed to the fire, while CN Rail said video footage posted on social media after the fire was not connected to Lytton.

A CP Railway spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the board's findings.

Mathieu Gaudreault of CN Rail said in a written statement that the company acknowledges the results of the investigation.

"We remain 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," he said.

A proposed class-action lawsuit filed in August on behalf of those who lost their homes or businesses in Lytton alleges the railways caused or contributed to the fire.

The lawsuit has not been certified by a judge as a class action and the allegations have not been proven in court. Neither rail company has filed a statement of defence.

Jason Gratl, a lawyer who represents the main plaintiff, said the legal team "is in no way deterred" by the safety's board investigation.

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 14, 2021.

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