When Wes Snukwa saw the results of the Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the fire that destroyed Lytton, he was shocked.
“First of all I was pretty surprised that the investigation was already over,” he said.
The shock set in when he read that the investigation had found no link between railway operations and the June 30 fire.
“I’m sad for the people of Lytton, all my family and my friends. I’m just shocked that it went down this way,” he said.
Snukwa (who also goes by Wilson) said the first photos he saw of the fire looked like it was started by a train.
“Being a Lytton resident, you know where that fire is. Right at the end of the bridge, right beside the tracks, just like they said in their report. It was five feet from the centre of the tracks; you can tell that from the very first photo my dad sent me, that it’s very likely this was caused by a train.”
He said fires have been started by trains in the Lytton area before.
“It’s just something – I hate to say it – but it’s something that’s a norm, that they would spark fires… I just never thought it would come to this. Losing our whole town.”
Snukwa said fires and derailments are familiar.
“It’s just something we have to put up with. We have two railroads, one right above our village, and one right below our village. That’s why I said it’s kind of like a norm, it’s just something… you should be aware of.”
Both CN and CP run trains through the area.
Snukwa’s family are members of the Lytton First Nation. Snukwa grew up in Lytton but moved 16 years ago to Salmon Arm. He is the only person in his family to move away. Like all buildings on the reserve except one, his family home burned to the ground.
Snukwa said he expected the investigation to include talking to people who live nearby.
“There’s a lot of us who believe it is the train that started that fire. For a lot of us locals, Lytton is a small town, we all know each other. For us to know people who are close to that area weren’t contacted in regards to this investigation is pretty disheartening,” Snukwa said.
He said his cousin was working nearby because they were helping elders bring groceries across that bridge. A friend was on the other side of the river, and he said they took photos and a video of a coal train that appeared to be smoking shortly before the fire started.
“Would the outcome be different if they talked to those people who were at ground zero? Or maybe they’re leaving that up to the police, I don’t know,” Snukwa remarked.
Contacted by the Observer about the investigation, a communications person for the TSB wrote in an email: “Although we did not interview residents, we did review the statements of eyewitnesses and none actually saw the fire start; only after the train went by did they see smoke and subsequently flames. From the interviews we determined that no one saw anything from the train that directly started the fire.”
The TSB spokesperson also wrote: “Interviews of witnesses are only conducted if they have a direct knowledge or information which might be useful in investigating the transportation occurrence. Examples of this can include eye witnesses, operating crews and survivors. It has been the TSB’s experience that witnesses to an occurrence will come forward proactively in providing what they know. For the Lytton investigation, the TSB was provided access to witness information collected by other agencies which was considered by the TSB in arriving at our conclusions.”
The TSB did not divulge which other agencies collected eyewitness statements, citing privacy and other restrictions.
The BC Wildfire Service and the RCMP are also investigating the fire; it’s not known when those investigations will be complete.
Snukwa said he has been wondering why a CN rail truck was seen where the fire area begins at the south end of Lytton on July 5 about 10 p.m. That was before the TSB investigator arrived in Lytton and when no residents were permitted in the area.
The TSB report stated that an investigator was deployed on July 9 to gather information, examine and photograph the area, and assess if railway vehicles could have caused or sustained the fire.
Asked about the truck on July 5, a CN public affairs spokesperson responded: “On July 5, 2021, CN was granted access to its right of way, in coordination with local authorities and First Nations, to inspect its infrastructure and carry out repairs on the damaged bridge that is vital to the passage of railway traffic. Rail traffic resumed on July 13th.”
Snukwa said while Lytton residents are evacuated, CN has donated some gas cards to evacuees and prepaid visas. “That was mighty nice of them,” he acknowledged, adding: “We want to know why our town burnt down, whether it was them or anybody else. Two more investigations are going on… Maybe they’ll find a different answer.”
It’s weird the way Lytton is built, Snukwa said. A two-mile-long town.
“There’s downtown which is the village, and then you get to the end of the block and it starts the reserve. There’s that invisible line, but when it really comes down to it, we’re all just one village. It’s one of those small hometowns where everyone knows everyone. Everyone cares for everyone. And when it comes to something like this, the Lyttonites are going to unite and support each other,” he said. Like they have been since the fire.
His family home was completely destroyed. Even the chimney fell. The only things found were a small urn with his mother’s ashes, a safe with some jewelry as well as some ceramics. Nothing that could be reused, he said.
Strangely, a white wooden arch from his father and step-mom’s wedding a year ago was the only thing still standing.
“Which is kind of cool and crazy at the same time,” he said.
Of the 30 or more buildings on the reserve, just one house remains, possibly because it stands next to the green elementary school field.
“Our school is gone, our community hall, our band administration building and all our houses – all gone.”
He said it’s impossible to go into Lytton and walk around now. There’s just a lane of blue fences, room enough only for two vehicles to pass.
“You can’t see anything.”
He said he’s grateful to the band’s chief and council as they have been holding zoom meetings for the membership and have hired a consultant who’s experienced in traumatic events.
Investigations of air, water and soil are being done and a search is on for someone who can get rid of the debris in a safe manner.
Plans to put temporary houses on another reserve on Highway 12 towards Lillooet are being made for the end of January.
“Which is sad because with so many displaced people, they’re going to be out wherever they’re evacuated to, spending the holidays in a motel or wherever they ended up.”
Snukwa is grateful his family was able to find cabins together up the Fraser River near Spence’s Bridge, one for his parents and his sister, one for his uncles and one for his stepbrother and his partner.
Snukwa said it’s been announced that no one will be able to rebuild for two or three years. That’s particularly frustrating for his father, a carpenter, who just wants to get back to the site of his family home and rebuild.
Snukwa lives near Monte Lake. He said that area has progressed much more quickly after a fire than Lytton has and he wonders why.
Despite the frustrations, Snukwa expressed a lot of gratitude.
Gratitude for the people of Canoe for doing a donation drive for the victims of the Lytton fire. For local company Gorgeous George’s Forges who makes custom knives and donated part of their profits from one month. For the Armstrong Regional Co-op for donating a storage unit to hold donations. For the people of Salmon Arm and even Kelowna who brought donations. For all of the kindness and generosity.
Ultimately, Snukwa said, people in Lytton want to be heard.
“We just want answers, we want accountability, we want the truth. This is not just somebody’s house burning up, it’s the whole town.”
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