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

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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., but she can't rule out 100 per cent that railway operations were unrelated to the inferno that killed two people this summer.

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.

"All we have said 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.

However, James Carmichael, the 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 safety agency is currently 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.

She said given that fires can be started by trains operating in extreme temperatures due to climate change, "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, noting 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 board investigator collected samples of a black, coal-like substance as a possible source of ignition and other samples were also taken, the report says.

"Comparison samples gathered from a locomotive exhaust stack and a rail grinder vehicle were also collected and sent to the TSB lab for analysis. The spectral results revealed that the three analyzed samples have little in common."

Neither CN Rail nor CP Rail were immediately available for comment on the board's findings.

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 allegations have not been proven in court and neither rail company has filed a statement of defence.

Jackie Tegart, the Opposition Liberal member of the legislature who represents Lytton, has said last week Premier John Horgan has not followed through on a pledge to rebuild the village.

However, Horgan has told the legislature that efforts are underway to bring together private, municipal, non-government and Indigenous groups to plan the future of Lytton.

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver

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

The Canadian Press

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