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Lytton, B.C., devastated by wildfire; some residents still unaccounted for

Residents evacuated to surrounding communities last night

UPDATE: 2:18 p.m.

Premier John Horgan and Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth indicated a provincewide state of emergency is on the table mere hours after the provincewide state of emergency due to COVID-19 was lifted.

During Thursday's press conference, Horgan said 62 new wildfires and 29,000 lightning strikes were reported in the past 24 hours. Now, Lytton is gone and the province is considering another state of emergency in B.C. this summer.

"All of us have been shocked to see the images of people fleeing the wildfires in Lytton, the Fraser Canyon and beyond. Our primary concern is to protect lives and ensure we are doing everything we can to evacuate safely and to fight the fires," Horgan told reporters.

The cause of the fire is now under investigation.

"We do not yet know what started the fire in Lytton," the premier said when asked directly about the possibility that a spark from a train may have started the blaze.

"I encourage all British Columbians, as we continue to go through what will be a hot dry summer, to pay attention to public service announcements. Know what's going on in your communities," Horgan said.

This is the third summer in the past five years where the province has had to deal with record wildfire activity.

"The most important thing that the public can do is to prepare yourself and your family for any potential fires in your area and avoid any and all activity that may result in a wildfire," Farnworth said.

B.C.'s longest wildfire-related state was in 2017, and lasted 10 weeks.

UPDATE 1:47 p.m.

Premier John Horgan says two separate blazes, one in town and a wildfire near the outskirts, are still active and creating a situation whose danger cannot be overstated.

A local state of emergency has been declared in the Lytton area of B.C. but a provincewide state of emergency has not been declared at this time.

"We are in a changing environment and climate change is affecting all of our lives. We need to amend our ability to adapt to avoid the horrible, horrible damage to the town of Lytton," Horgan says.

UPDATE: 1:15 p.m.

Premier John Horgan says, "my heart goes out to the people of Lytton and I want to assure everyone that the people of B.C. support them and will help in any way they can and the province will be there to rebuild."

Horgan and Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, spoke Thursday afternoon about devastating wildfires that have destroyed the town of Lytton amid an extended heat wave across the province including record temperatures in Lytton.

"I cannot stress how extreme the fire danger risk in our province," Horgan says.

Horgan also says there will be no backcountry activity, business or otherwise until we get more rain and the threat of wildfires ease.

"This is a challenging time, we have asked for more help from across the country and the federal government has offered their support included the aid of military personnel."

British Columbia's public safety minister says most homes and buildings in the town of Lytton have been destroyed by fire that forced the evacuation of nearly 1,000 residents.

Mike Farnworth says the destroyed buildings include the town ambulance station and RCMP detachment.

He says several residents are also still unaccounted for.

A fire prompted a hasty evacuation of the town on Wednesday, giving residents moments to grab their possessions and flee to safety.

UPDATE: 12:45 p.m.

Heartbreaking experiences of those who fled the flames in Lytton are starting to come in.

Rosanna Stamberg is looking for her son and daughter, Alfred and Marjorie Nelson, who live about eight kilometres from the centre of town in Lytton.

"I don't know which direction they went. I don't know if they went down towards Chilliwack. I don't know if they went to Lillooet. I don't know if they went to Spencer's Bridge or Merritt or Kamloops. I have no idea," she said in an interview from her home in Enderby. "Or if they stayed home."

Efforts to reach her children by phone have been unsuccessful due to a lack of cell service, she said.

"I'm very worried," she added.

A spokeswoman for BC Hydro, which services about 600 customers in the area, said the Crown corporation doesn't yet know how its equipment was affected.

"We know obviously there is damage but I have no idea what the extent to it is and we won't know until we've got the OK from fire crews to go in, and that might take a few days," Mora Scott said.

Castanet has a reporter in Merritt and Spences Bridge and will continue to update.

with files from the Canadian Press

UPDATE: 12:20 p.m.

Premier John Horgan and Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, will be speaking about devastating wildfires that have destroyed the town of Lytton and are threatening the Big White Ski Resort.

The pair will be joined by representatives from the BC Wildfire Service and Emergency Management BC to provide an update at 1 p.m. on the current wildfire situation in British Columbia.

Ninety per cent of Lytton has been destroyed by fire, including nearby infrastructure like Telus and BC Hydro stations. Rail and highway infrastructure have also been impacted.

In the Interior, three fires are burning close together approximately 18 kilometres from Big White Ski Resort and new fires have sprung up at Trepanier Creek on the Okanagan Connector and west of Darke Lake, where another fire is already burning.

A shocking 486 sudden deaths have been reported across British Columbia over the past five days as the province suffers under a blistering heat wave, coroners said on Wednesday.

The government is still working to determine how many of the deaths are directly related to the sweltering heat that's broken dozens of local and national temperature records, but the B.C. Coroners Service said it's likely many are connected to the weather.

UPDATE: 11 a.m.

British Columbia's wildfire service says a blaze burning around Lytton, B.C. is still classified as "out of control" hours after town residents were ordered to flee.

Taylor MacDonald, a fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service, says the fire is roughly 80 square kilometres, or 8,000 hectares, in size.

John Haugen, a deputy chief with the Lytton First Nation, says there has been a lot of "devastation and loss."

He says the nation, which has evacuated people to a recreational centre in Lillooet, B.C., is still trying to account for all of its members.

He says part of the issue is a lack of cell service in the community, as well as people being forced to leave with little time to prepare.

Premier John Horgan and Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth along with emergency officials will be holding a news conference at 1 p.m.

with files from CP

UPDATE: 9:55 a.m.

The local Member of Parliament for Lytton says 90 per cent of the village has been lost.

In a post to Facebook, Brad Vis said the fire has caused “extensive damage” to the community and surrounding critical infrastructure.

“The town has sustained structural damage and 90 per cent of the village is burned, including the centre of town.”

In addition to Telus cell towers, BC Hydro, rail and highway infrastructure are also impacted.

“There is no access to Highway 1 north of Lytton, and Highway 12 is also compromised. Detours are available via Highway 8 & Highway 5. There are reports of several injuries. The situation is ongoing.”

“I am in communication with the federal Minister of Public Safety and Minister of Indigenous Services who are responding accordingly in conjunction with provincial authorities,” he continued.

There is no word yet on if there were any deaths in the fire.

UPDATE: 9:25 a.m.

Telus says the fire that tore through Lytton Wednesday damaged the company's fibre lines, impacting two cell towers that provide wireless service throughout the community.

The lack of cell service in the area has made it difficult for emergency officials to account for evacuees and try to connect them with families.

Scott Hildebrand, chief administrative officer of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, told the CBC they are also fielding calls from people looking for family and loved ones.

"That's one of our challenges right now, is that we had people leave in all different directions,” he told the public broadcaster Thursday morning.

In a statement to Castanet, Telus said they are working with local authorities and emergency crews to assess the damage and begin restoring services as soon as they are given permission to work in the fire zone.

“To support emergency services on the ground, we are bringing in a cell tower on wheels to ensure emergency responders have a reliable wireless signal to stay connected,” Telus said.

“We are also deploying SmartHubs, satellite phones, hundreds of additional cell phones and charging cables, and comfort kits with necessities like toothbrushes and hand sanitizer to evacuees.”

The provider has also suspended all home service billing in Lytton indefinitely and is waiving all wireless overages for the month of July for those who were evacuated.

“These credits and free overages will be applied automatically so our customers do not need to worry about contacting us,” Telus added. “ We want everyone to focus on staying safe.”

UPDATE: 7:06 a.m.

A family that fled a wildfire near Lytton, B.C., is wondering if they'll have a home to go back to as hundreds of residents of the village were ordered to leave because structures and public safety were threatened.

Jean McKay said she smelled smoke at her home in the First Nations community of Kanaka Bar, home to about 100 people and approximately 15 kilometres from Lytton.

McKay said her 22-year-old daughter, Deirdre McKay, started to panic as the smell of smoke grew stronger.

"I was still sitting there and wondering what to pack, emotionally walking out my door but thinking 'I'm leaving all this behind.' It's hard. Very hard. When my girlfriend told me her house was burning it really hit home," McKay said.

"My daughter phoned before we lost services and stuff, she's telling us, 'Get out of there, get out of there.'"

Leaving their home was extremely difficult, she said: "I cried. My daughter cried. She said, 'I don't even know why I grabbed my key. We might not even have a home.' I said, 'Yeah I know. As long as we're together we'll survive.' I just pray that our houses are OK."

There was one memento her daughter couldn't leave behind: "She grabbed my dad's picture off the wall," McKay said. "I'm telling her, 'We're walking out and this is the home we built forever and that you guys grew up in.' It's harsh."

McKay said that with nowhere to go, she, her two daughters, her granddaughter and her mother went to stay at the CP Rail "bunkhouse" in Boston Bar, where she works as a cleaning supervisor and where crews often stay overnight.

Her thoughts late Wednesday night were on the damage the wildfire may have inflicted on Lytton and the surrounding area.

"Now I'm wondering if the bridge is still standing in Lytton. There's a train bridge that the community walks on too. That fire was all around that area."

McKay said there was no sign of any trouble shortly before the stench of smoke blanketed the area around her home.

With files from the Canadian Press

ORIGINAL: 5:31 a.m.

As the sun rises, it’s not clear how much is left of the village of Lytton after an inferno tore through the Upper Fraser Canyon community Wednesday.

Photos and videos from those who fled the flames posted to social media corroborate local MLA Jackie Tegart’s description of “catastrophic damage.”

“Our poor little town of Lytton is gone,” said Edith Loring Kuhanga on Facebook.

A video posted by the 2 Rivers Remix Society in Lytton showed several burning homes and businesses as the vehicle’s occupants drove away.

Firefighters, police officers and paramedics from across the province have been sent to Lytton to deal with the catastrophe.

Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman told CTV News he was just hopeful that all the residents managed to get out in time, but it is entirely possible that the entire town burned.

The loss of cell service to the area has made it difficult to get information out of the area, something Telus says they are working on.

Lytton Coun. Robert Leitch said the fire that caused the evacuation order started south of town around 5:15 p.m. and spread within 15 minutes, and that's when he left.

"When I first saw the smoke at the south end of town coming up really fast, I told my partner that, well, you know, that fire is breaking inside the village. Let's get our stuff in the truck," he said, adding that they are staying with friends in Ashcroft.

"So we went around, backed up the truck, packed everything up, knocked on a few neighbours' doors, and by that time the fire was already 100 metres from my house."

Scott Hildebrand, chief administrative officer of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said the evacuation order for the village of 250 residents 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.

Highway 1 remains closed through the area.

An evacuee reception centre has been set up in Merritt at 1721 Coldwater Ave.

This story will be updated throughout the day.

With files from the Canadian Press

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