‘Lytton is gone’: wildfire tears through village after record-breaking heat
Officials didn’t have time to issue evacuation orders while dry conditions make suppressing wildfires in Canada impossible
After three days of unrelenting heat, the people in the British Columbia village of Lytton were hoping for a modest respite.
Temperatures which had shattered longstanding national records – at one point reaching a blistering 49.6C (121.28F) – eased slightly on Wednesday, raising hopes that the worst was over.
But that same day, a wildfire tore through the settlement 153km (95 miles) north-east of Vancouver. It was moving so fast that officials didn’t even have time to issue evacuation orders.
Residents saw the thick black smoke filling the valley, grabbed what they could, and escaped. Within hours, most of the buildings had been consumed by flames.
“Our poor little town of Lytton is gone,” Edith Loring-Kuhanga, an administrator at Stein Valley Nlakapamux school, wrote on Facebook. She grabbed her suitcase, a pillow and computer case. Despite a loud explosion from the fire, she rushed back in to grab her purse.
“We loaded everyone up in our vehicles and started driving … we had no power or internet in Lytton and everyone was trying to reach people,” she wrote. “This is so devastating – we are all in shock! Our community members have lost everything.”
While the unprecedented heat has ebbed slightly, the people of Canada’s western provinces are now confronting the grim effects of the blistering temperatures – including a surge in heat-related deaths and the growing spectre of wildfires devouring bone-dry forests.
The people of Lytton had been warned of a fire, 123 acres in size, which was burning south of the village. Officials watched warily as it grew and inched towards the community of 250.
But it was a new fire, fanned by strong winds, that surprised town officials, ripping through the community and engulfing buildings within minutes of being spotted.
“I cried. My daughter cried,” resident Jean McKay told the Canadian Press. She packed up what she could in her home in Kanaka Bar, a First Nations community near Lytton, “[My daughter] said, ‘I don’t even know why I grabbed my key. We might not even have a home.’ I said … as long as we’re together we’ll survive.’ I just pray that our houses are OK.”
The “heat dome” that blanketed British Columbia – and is now moving eastward to Alberta – has produced a flurry of wildfires in recent days. Crews are grappling with more than 26 blazes across the province – a task complicated by the lingering effects of the record-breaking temperatures. Earlier this week, helicopters meant to fight the Sparks Lake fire, which has since grown to more than 200 sq km in size, were grounded because their engines had overheated.
Towering over that blaze were pyrocumulonimbus clouds – a towering formation often known to create other weather systems, including lightning strikes.
The dry, tinder-like conditions of the landscape have made suppressing the fires impossible and the province has pulled back resources to keep fire crews safe.
As the interior of the province burns, residents in major cities received a glimpse of the danger brought by the heatwave when Vancouver’s chief coroner announced “sudden and unexpected” deaths had surged nearly 200% in the preceding five days – a figure that will only rise as more communities input data.
On Wednesday, the province announced 486 sudden deaths, far above the typical 165 deaths for a similar period.
“While it is too early to say with certainty how many of these deaths are heat-related, it is believed likely that the significant increase in deaths reported is attributable to the extreme weather BC has experienced and continues to impact many parts of our province,” Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, said in a statement.
Many of those who died over the five-day period were seniors, lived alone and were found in residences that were hot and not well-ventilated.
“What we’ve seen here is absolutely unprecedented,” Mike Farnworth, the province’s public safety minister, told reporters. Heat-related deaths are rare in the province – only three have been recorded over the last five years.
Experts – and Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden – have linked the unprecedented recent heatwave to climate change, warning it is likely to make extreme weather events a more common occurrence in the future.
Farnworth said a detailed coroner’s report on the deaths is critical for the province to prepare “if and when an event happens like this again” – an indication that officials are bracing to once again confront record-breaking heat.