The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Lytton is gone’: Accounts of death, destruction in Canadian village that caught fire in record heat

Video recorded from a car traveling through Lytton, B.C., on June 30, shows wildfire ravaging the small town during an evacuation. (Video: Reuters)

This story has been updated.

Residents returning to what remained of Lytton, B.C., after the tiny Canadian village was hit by a wildfire on Wednesday evening brought with them accounts of death and destruction.

Jeff Chapman told Postmedia News that his parents, a couple in their 60s named Janette and Mike, took cover in a hole in the ground as the area went up in flames.

Chapman, who was nearby getting ready for a family barbecue, then saw an electricity pole topple and fall on his parent’s hiding spot. They did not make it out, he told a reporter, speaking from a motel in a nearby town on Thursday.

“It’s their grave now," he said.

Local officials have said that roughly 90 percent of the village, which had a population of about 250, was burned in the fire. The local ambulance station and Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment were among the buildings burned.

The British Columbia Coroners Service said on Friday that it had received reports of two deaths in Lytton. The agency said coroners are near the area, but it is still unsafe to attend.

With the slogan “Canada’s hot spot," Lytton was well-known as a place that could see warmer temperatures than usual for Canada’s west. Nested in a valley, its low elevation also made it particularly dry.

But even by Lytton’s standards, the heat brought to the area by this week’s “heat dome” of high pressure were unusual, raising new concerns about the unpredictable impact of climate change weather events.

On Sunday, it set a record for top temperature in Canada at 116 degrees. The following day, it broke it again with 118 degrees. On Tuesday, the record went up to 121 degrees.

Around 6 p.m. on Wednesday evening, officials ordered the town evacuated. In total, around 1,000 people in the village and surrounding area were evacuated. Royal Canadian Mounted Police went door to door, telling people it was time to leave, now.

“Our poor little town of Lytton is gone,” one resident, Edith Loring Kuhanga, wrote Thursday on Facebook. “This is so devastating — we are all in shock! Our community members have lost everything.”

In an email sent the next morning to members of the media, village councilor Lilliane Graie wrote that most residents escaped with “only the clothes on our backs.”

The damage to the village was probably “catastrophic,” Graie wrote in the message, which she said was sent on behalf of Mayor Jan Polderman and other officials without Internet access.

At a news conference, provincial officials said that the impact of the fire was still being assessed.

Mike Farnworth, British Columbia’s public safety minister and solicitor general, said Thursday that some residents were unaccounted for, in part because people scattered when they evacuated.

“This has been a very difficult day,” Farnworth said, “and the days ahead are going to challenge us.”

Officials also shared a link for evacuees to register for support services.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan said that he had spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who offered his assistance. He warned that the fire risk remained “extreme” in almost every part of the province, with 62 new fires and 29,000 lightning strikes in the past 24 hours.

“Lytton has been devastated,” the premier said, “and it will take an extraordinary amount of effort to get that historic location back to what it was.”

One video filmed by residents on Wednesday showed the village shrouded in reddish haze, with black smoke billowing from trees, buildings and cars.

Lytton’s weather station webcam went offline that evening at 5:40 p.m. local time, around the time that a power outage hit nearby. The last weather reading from the station came just a minute later, with temperatures of almost 99 degrees and winds of 42 miles per hour.

Wildfire engulfs village that set Canada’s all-time heat record

Lytton’s climate nightmare comes amid a wave of hot weather across British Columbia. It is the result of the same “heat dome” caused by high pressure — which forces the heat down rather than allowing it to rise, in turn making the air even hotter — that has led to record heat in U.S. cities such as Portland and Seattle.

Lytton had set records for high temperatures for three days in a row — surpassing the highest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas.

Trudeau said on Friday that he would be convening a meeting of his incident response group in the afternoon to address the needs of those communities in British Columbia hit by extreme weather and wildfires.

“Obviously, today our thoughts are mostly with families that are grieving, facing a terrible loss,” he told reporters. “But of course, we also have to recognize the fact that extreme weather events are getting more frequent and climate change has a significant role to play in that.”

The heat may have already had a devastating impact across much of British Columbia, with elderly and other vulnerable residents appearing to have been hit hardest.

British Columbia’s Coroners Service had received reports of 719 sudden and unexpected deaths between June 25 and Thursday , Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a statement, three times the usual number.

Founded at the confluence of two major rivers during the Gold Rush, Lytton’s economy once revolved around forestry but it is now mainly a destination for white-water rafting.

It routinely reports some of the highest temperatures in Canada, due to a combination of dry air and low elevation.

Polderman told a local radio station this week that he’d hoped the town’s “hot spot” slogan wouldn’t be quite so literal.

“I’d rather be known as Canada’s hot spot for education, health care, quality of life than for having the hottest temperatures,” he said on Wednesday.

Polderman made a quick drive into Lytton on Wednesday night after ordering the evacuation and told CTV News that the town had been “engulfed” by flames.

“I’m just hoping that all the residents got out,” Polderman added.

Lytton’s evacuation came amid a broader swath of wildfires. Two fires to the north of Lytton, centered on Sparks Lake and McKay Creek, had a combined area of 35 square miles, according to the wildfire service, with both classified as “out of control.”

Officials said Thursday that the cause of the fire was still under investigation, but that it was separate from a wildfire that was burning southeast of the village. Horgan said that he had “anecdotal information” consistent with reports that the fire was caused by a train moving through the community.

Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway, which operate trains through the area, said that they would cooperate with investigators.

“There was little or no time to warn the community,” Horgan said. “In fact, it was the mayor himself that got the first whiff,” and “within minutes, the city was engulfed.”

Read more:

Canada reports ‘significant’ increase in deaths thought to be linked to heat wave

Here’s what’s causing record temperatures in the Pacific Northwest

Madagascar is headed toward a climate change-linked famine it did not create