Pemberton mayor raises fears about trains diverted from Lytton sparking fires

·4 min read
Rail ties on a railway bridge near Lytton, B.C., are charred and twisted from a wildfire that tore through the area on June 30.  (Bethany Lindsay/CBC - image credit)
Rail ties on a railway bridge near Lytton, B.C., are charred and twisted from a wildfire that tore through the area on June 30. (Bethany Lindsay/CBC - image credit)

The mayor of Pemberton, B.C. is raising concerns about a railway's plans to increase traffic through his village.

He said he's been hearing from many worried local residents who got a notification this week from CN Railway. The company plans to run up to two extra trains along its Sea to Sky route north of Vancouver — diverting cargo from the wildfire-ravaged B.C. Interior routes.

"We are certainly a very hot, dry valley at this time of year," Mayor Mike Richman told CBC, "so fire concern — like most of the province — is very high.

"Sparks along the rails, equipment malfunction, those sorts of things are definitely top of mind when we're looking at rail activity."

Richman said he and other locals worry that dry conditions could mean unintentional sparks from the tracks. That's especially worrying, he said, in light of a newly launched Transportation Safety Board investigation into whether railcars may have played a role in starting the fire that burned Lytton, B.C., to the ground June 30.

CN and CP railways have both denied any role in starting that fire and said they operate safely across the country.

For its part, CN has promised to double down on fire prevention and safety as it reroutes cargo through Pemberton and other communities along alternate tracks which have been relatively underused until now during the pandemic, Richman said.

The company declined an interview request, but in an email said it is boosting track patrols, inspecting trains for spark risks and having field staff monitor for problems.

"Following the tragic events in Lytton, B.C., CN's operations have been impacted in the region," a spokesperson wrote. "We are working collaboratively with local stakeholders and our customers, and keeping them informed of developments.

"Safety is a core value at CN and we have made sure to inspect our infrastructure in the Prince George-Vancouver corridor before making the decision."

It also said it will ensure each train between Vancouver and Prince George will be accompanied by a patrol.

Richman said he's reached out to the company for more information, but said historically CN has communicated poorly with a number of municipalities — and hopes to see a more proactive outreach to community leaders when changes in traffic are planned during wildfire seasons.

And although he welcomed CN's promise to increase track monitoring by staff in the field, he asked why the company couldn't have water pump trains following freight trains during the worst of wildfire season — or to add even more patrols than the ones planned.

"Whether it be water trucks following trains or that sort of thing, we want fire inspection crews out there inspecting the rails," he said. "We'll keep pushing for every safety control we can, and like I said having eyes on the track up and down the line is one of the most important things."

Meanwhile, Richman hopes CN's planned safety measures are enough as he and other leaders worry about the damage caused by wildfires so early this summer — and what may be yet to come.

"CN is an important rail operation that's super important to our country, and I get that," he said. "My concern is for my residents and my community and our valley."

The region around Pemberton has already faced wildfire risk this season. Emergency Management B.C. issued evacuation orders on July 3 and July 9 for areas northeast of the village in the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, which have since been downgraded to alerts, meaning residents must be ready to leave on short notice.

Rob Easton/CBC
Rob Easton/CBC

Anyone placed under an evacuation order must leave the area immediately.

Evacuation centres have been set up throughout the province to assist anyone evacuating from a community under threat from a wildfire. To find the centre closest to you, visit the Emergency Management BC website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.

Emergency Management B.C. is requesting that those who know of a person who may have been in Lytton on June 30, 2021 and who cannot be accounted for, call or attend any RCMP Detachment to report that person missing.