Tue, November 30, 2021

international

Our poor little town of Lytton is gone: Village at center of Canadas heat wave devastated by catastrophic fires


Until this week, "Canadas hot spot" might have seemed like a charming nickname for Lytton, British Columbia, a tiny town where summer temperatures soar.

But after a week of tragedy, the tagline has an ominous edge. Lytton broke successive Canadian heat records early this week, with temperatures peaking at 121 degrees on Tuesday afternoon. Then the fires swept in.

By 6 p.m. Wednesday, Lytton's 250-odd residents had been ordered to evacuate by the town's mayor as explosive wildfires neared .

On social media, residents offered accounts of their escape and, with cell service apparently down in much of the region, tried to find out what had become of friends and relatives.

"Our poor little town of Lytton is gone," one resident, Edith Loring Kuhanga, wrote 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, local councilor Lilliane Graie wrote that most residents escaped with "only the clothes on our backs."

The damage to the village was likely "catastrophic," Graie wrote in the message, which she said was sent on behalf of Mayor Jan Polderman and other officials without internet access. Officials shared a link for evacuees to register for support services.

At a news conference 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 that it had destroyed most homes and structures in Lytton, as well as the ambulance station and the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment.

Some residents were unaccounted for, in part because people scattered when they evacuated, Farnworth said.

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

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 lighting 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 mph.

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 like Portland and Seattle.

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

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 486 sudden and unexpected deaths between June 25 and Wednesday afternoon, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a statement, well over double 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.

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

Published : July 02, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Adam Taylor, Antonia Noori Farzan