Canadian Underwriter

Wildfire that destroyed Lytton, BC was not train-related, safety board finds

October 15, 2021   by Jason Contant

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There is no evidence that railway operations contributed to the wildfire that destroyed the town of Lytton, British Columbia this summer, an investigation from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has found.

“The TSB has not identified any link between railway operations and the fire,” the safety board reported Thursday. “The wildfire remains under investigation by BC Wildfire Service. The RCMP are conducting a preliminary inquiry to determine the need for a parallel criminal investigation.”

Following the wildfire on June 30, public figures such as B.C. Premier John Horgan openly speculated that the fire could have been caused by a train. TSB conducted “significant investigative work to determine if there was a definitive connection between railway operations through Lytton, B.C. and the fire that destroyed the town,” but found none.

Transport Canada even ordered fire monitoring, suppression, and risk reduction measures for railways to protect against wildfire “in the context of extreme weather conditions.” (Lytton set the all-time Canadian heat record for three days in a row around the time of the fire, culminating in a high of 49.6 degrees Celsius.)

The fire burned down about 90% of the village. Catastrophe Indices and Quantification Inc. (CatIQ) initially estimated the wildfire caused $78 million in insured damage. There were roughly 300 claims, the majority of which were related to residential properties.

North edge of crossing at Mile 98.14 Ashcroft Sub looking eastward – BC Wildfire Service suspected origin of fire. (Source: TSB)

According to a statement from TSB, the Lytton fire was reported near a Canadian National (CN) subdivision just west of the town. “The fire grew rapidly due to the extreme hot and dry conditions combined with high velocity winds, and ultimately devastated the majority of the structures in the town’s downtown area.”

A westbound Canadian Pacific (CP) coal train with 157 cars was the last train to pass through Lytton prior to the first report of fire, TSB said. The train passed through the suspected are of the fire’s origin about 18 minutes prior to the reporting of the fire. “There was no occurrence reported to the TSB by either CN or CP and nor were they aware of any such occurrence when specifically asked by the TSB,” the safety board said.

Based on information received from the RCMP and BC Wildfire Service and in the light of the presence of rolling stock (railway vehicles) in the immediate vicinity of the fire within minutes of the fire first being reported, TSB had reasonable grounds to believe there was a situation or condition that could induce an accident or incident (such as a fire caused by rolling stock).

Among other findings, TSB’s investigation found the following:

  • No rail grinding activities or track work had taken place in the area on the day of the fire (or days leading up to it);
  • An investigation of the train found no anomalies with regard to potential fire-creating situations. Transport Canada had also performed a safety inspection of the train earlier at the request of the RCMP and noted no anomalies;
  • Data from locomotive event recorders found no anomalies with the operation of the train through Lytton;
  • No sparking was noted during the load testing of three locomotives. Exhaust stacks were inspected and found to be clear of carbon build-up.

As of Thursday, there had been 1,621 wildfires in B.C. so far this year, burning a total area of 868,149 hectares, according to information from the BC Wildfire Service.

The area burned is more than double the 10-year average of 347,104 hectares burned for a full fire season, Anita Paulic, director of operations and catastrophe response with ClaimsPro in Vancouver, told Canadian Underwriter earlier. This year’s number of wildfires is also a couple hundred more than the 10-year average of 1,356.


Feature image: A Canadian Pacific freight train travels on tracks covered with fire retardant in an area burned by wildfire above the Thompson River near Lytton, B.C., on Sunday, August 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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