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Lytton residents say TSB investigation 'flawed,' demand to be interviewed

No link was found between railway operations and the devastating fire that levelled the Fraser Canyon village earlier this year.
Lytton resident Edith Loring-Kuhanga took this photo of her village on July 9. She's among several residents dumbfounded that the TSB investigation didn't interview people who lived in the town.

A day after Canada’s Transportation Safety Board found no evidence a train had triggered a wildfire that burned down the town of Lytton, B.C., residents have launched a petition demanding a new investigation.

“The transportation safety board carried out a flawed investigation into the cause of this fire,” stated the petition on the website

“We the undersigned demand that the Canadian Transportation [Safety] Board interview the several witnesses as part of this new investigation.”

TSB investigator-in-charge James Carmichael said Thursday his team found no links between a train passing through Lytton and a fire that decimated the town 18 minutes later. Carmichael said the investigation examined the train for hot bearings and burnt brake heads, and tested samples of a coal-like substance found near the rail tracks.

Interviews with railway employees, videos from the train, as well as data recorded from the train and tracks also found no signs of fire. 

But when pressed by reporters, Carmichael admitted that no direct interviews were conducted with residents of the town. 

“I’m obviously very disappointed and frustrated,” said Edith Loring-Kuhanga, an administrator at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School who lost her home.

“If you are going to go to a scene of an accident, do you not talk to the witnesses? They didn’t interview one resident. What does that say?” 

Other residents of the village took to social media and condemned the TSB investigation as flawed. 

Many cited videos reportedly showing trains on fire in nearby communities shortly before Lytton went up in flames. But Carmichael said the TSB reviewed those videos and found no evidence they were linked to the Lytton fire. 

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District and the Lytton First Nation earlier said they thought the train was the cause of the fire. 

“I confess to being surprised. But I’m in no position to disagree with that conclusion,” said TNRD board chair Ken Gillis. “From those videos, it looked like it was a reasonable suspicion.”

“It strikes me as unusual that they wouldn’t consult people in the community. Whoever came up with those videos, you’d think they’d want to speak to those people about when, where and how they got them.” 

Glacier Media reached out for comment from Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman as well as Lytton First Nation Chief Janet Webster, but did not receive a response at the time of publication. 

Carmichael was not available to answer questions over why his investigation did not include interviews with residents. A TSB spokesperson, however, said that while investigators did not interview residents, they did review eyewitness statements and “none actually saw the fire start.”

“Only after the train went by did they see smoke and subsequently flames,” said TSB spokesperson Alexandre Fournier in an email. “From the interviews, we determined that no one saw anything from the train that directly started the fire.”

In a call with reporters Thursday, TSB chair Kathy Fox said its investigation does not offer 100 per cent proof that the train did not start the fire. Rather, investigators simply found no evidence to support such a claim. 

“All we have said is that based on all of the information we've collected from multiple sources, we have no evidence to support that railway operations, caused or ignited the fire,” said Fox.

“If we receive any information that is compelling enough to cause us to reopen the investigation, we're prepared to do that.”

The BC Wildfire Service and the RCMP are currently conducting two parallel investigations into what sparked the blaze.

Several residents of the town have launched two proposed class-action lawsuits against the Canada National and Canadian Pacific railway companies, blaming them for starting the fire. None of those allegations have been tested in court.

Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everything in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email [email protected]