Gordon Murray was shocked by the "vista of destruction" as he and other residents of Lytton, B.C., returned to their community Friday to survey the damage done by a wildfire that tore through it last week.
A fast-moving wildfire swept through the village on June 30, leaving residents with just minutes to flee. The village's entire downtown core and "most homes" were wiped out by flames, according to the mayor, making the fire one of B.C.'s most destructive fire-related incidents in recent memory.
As the bus drove through the village, Murray said the sounds of shock and loss filled the air as residents pressed themselves up against the windows, waiting to find out what had happened to their homes.
"It was palpable, the sense of grief and loss that people were having," he said.
"It was shocking. It was like being kicked in the solar plexus."
WATCH | Extensive damage in Lytton:
Murray said the town was "completely erased," but evidence of what was once there remains — mostly chimneys, charred cars and concrete walls. Fellow resident Katrina Sam said everything was black.
Sam's home, the house in which her husband grew up in and had lived in for more than 50 years, was destroyed.
"It's gone," she said.
"It was very tough, but I knew what to expect, I knew. But I just wanted to see it with my own eyes. I just wanted to know. It just brought closure to me."
Murray was unable to check out the damage to his own property too closely, but described what he could make out as "haunting" — he saw his chimney and the white fireplace attached to it, and that's all.
"It was impossible to take it all in," he said.
"There's nothing left of the town, essentially."
'Nothing about this feels real'
Chloe Ross boarded the bus on behalf of her grandmother, who lost her home in the fire. Her parents, who are also from Lytton, did not want to get on the bus. She said the visit would be difficult, but was the right decision for her.
"We've seen the videos, but until you actually see it, it's hard to believe," Ross said from the parking lot before boarding.
"I understand why others don't want to go. Nothing about this feels real."
Ross said her family recognized her grandmother's neighbourhood in videos as an area that burned down. She said her grandmother escaped with her two cats and her dog, but little else.
WATCH | Aerial footage shows Lytton after the fire:
Two people were killed in the fire and several others were injured.
An investigation is underway as to the cause of the fire, but the B.C. Wildfire Service has said it was likely caused by human activity.
The Transportation Safety Board says new information it received on the suspected source of the fire has prompted an investigation into the possible involvement of a freight train.
The board says the information came from investigations by the RCMP and BC Wildfire Service.
The board says it is not yet known which rail line is linked to the train in question and neither Canadian Pacific Rail nor CN Rail has filed any "occurrence reports" related to the Lytton fire.
WATCH | Speculation that train caused fire continues:
CN Rail says it has investigated a video circulating on social media depicting a train — purported by some to have caused the fire — and concluded it does not show a train in the Lytton area at that time.
"In fact, the video shows a train 45 kilometres south of Lytton, and the smoke seen in the video comes from a different fire that was already burning,'' said CN Rail spokesperson Mathieu Gaudreault.
CP Rail resumed its service through Lytton on Monday.
Hours ahead of the residents' tour on Friday, the federal government ordered trains to cease operations for 48 hours in areas of B.C. hit by the recent spate of wildfires.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra issued the order "in the interest of safe railway operations, and to protect public safety for the temporary return of residents to inspect their homes in Lytton, British Columbia," the statement said.
The order, which took effect on Friday, will affect lines used by both CN Rail and CP Rail.
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.
People who know of anybody unaccounted for who may have been in Lytton on June 30, 2021, can call or attend any RCMP detachment to report that person missing, Emergency Management BC says.