Following three straight days of breaking records for the highest temperatures recorded in Canada, the village of Lytton, B.C., is burning.
An out-of-control wildfire caught the wind late Wednesday afternoon and began tearing through the town and claiming most buildings. Images posted to social media show homes, stores and the local health centre engulfed by flames. A couple in their 60s were reportedly killed while trying to flee.
The wildfires may result in British Columbia declaring a state of emergency, just days after government officials announced the provincial state of emergency for COVID-19 would be lifted.
The village is home to about 250 people, and about 1,700 people live on surrounding Nlaka’pamux Nation reserves and rural areas. Mayor Jan Polderman issued an evacuation order at 6 p.m. Wednesday, saying all buildings and people in the town were threatened by the blaze.
“It happened so fast that no one had time to think about it and to really get ready for this. We were told just get out now,” she said. “It’s just a bad dream, this is all a dream.
“We don’t have a community now. We have nothing.”
McArthur said since her husband’s family used to own the old Lytton Lumber Mill south of the town, they knew they could go there and find running water.
She, her husband, their three cats and some neighbours slept on the floor of the office Wednesday night before heading to other nearby towns to stay with relatives. McArthur said they ended up with relatives in Siska, unsure how long it will be until they are able to return to their home, which was one of the few left standing by the fire.
“Lytton is a small town and we’re all related to each other, and that is what we do. We take care of our people,” she said. “You give them shelter and a place to sleep. That’s the Nlaka’pamux way.”
Since the fire progressed quickly through town, many had no time to take belongings with them or check in with family members about where they planned to evacuate.
The evacuation was complicated by the fact that residents went in one of three directions — north, south or east (the Fraser River is on the west side of town) — scrambling to find places for themselves and their animals to stay. Family members took to Facebook asking for word of their loved ones, as cellphone service had cut out.
A man reported that his parents, both in their 60s, died while fleeing the fire that reached their house in Lytton on Wednesday.
Jeff Chapman told Postmedia News that the couple took cover in a hole in the ground as their house between the railway tracks and the downtown core began to burn.
Chapman said he ran toward the tracks but moments later, saw a power pole explode and fall on top of the hole.
Speaking with reporters Thursday afternoon, B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said there were several wildfires burning in B.C.
“Of these fires, the one affecting Lytton and the surrounding areas has been catastrophic,” he said. It is still burning “aggressively,” he added, with most homes and other structures in the town destroyed, and some individuals still unaccounted for.
The location of the people unaccounted for is being investigated by the RCMP, Farnworth said.
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Leesa Van Peteghen, among those evacuated, posted a video to Facebook Wednesday evening with a call for help.
“Right now it is 10 minutes after 8 p.m. on June 30,” she said. “Lytton is burnt or burning and everyone is evacuated. Prayers to everyone and the animals and everything.”
Cities to the north, south and east of Lytton — Lillooet, Boston Bar and Merritt — all set up emergency evacuation centres, and First Nations outside the area threatened by the fire also opened up their offices for people seeking shelter.
The Lytton evacuation order was followed by a larger set of evacuation orders by the Thompson Nicola Regional District, which also include Copper Desert Country and Blue Sky Country, areas threatened by other nearby fires.
Scott Hildebrand, chief administrative officer of the regional district, said the evacuation order for the village was issued as soon as possible.
“It didn’t matter because people were already fleeing,” he said, adding smoke blanketed the area within minutes and structures were burning as residents left.
Hotel rooms around the area were already booked by people seeking relief from the heat wave and by those getting away for Canada Day as most COVID-19 restrictions in the province were lifted, as well as by crews working on a pipeline project, Hildebrand said.
He said about 1,000 people in First Nations communities may also be ordered to evacuate, but it was hard to get in contact with their local governments.
“It happened so quickly that we’re struggling to connect with everybody because power is down, cellphone lines are down. It’s a tough situation.”
The blaze is among three major wildfires in British Columbia’s southern Interior.
Karen McArthur said she began packing up belongings in the late afternoon after some neighbours told her the fire was burning close to the village.
The B.C. Wildfire Service said the McKay Creek fire had charred 50 square kilometres in the Pavilion area just north of Lillooet, while flames had burned at least 40 square kilometres around Sparks Lake, about 15 kilometres north of Kamloops.
All three fires are suspected to be human-caused, although they remained under investigation.
The Savage Society has set up an online fundraiser to support the evacuees with supplies.
At its hottest, Lytton reached 49.5 C on Tuesday.
With files from The Canadian Press
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
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