An out-of-control fire that continues to rage after consuming almost the entirety of a small town and a First Nations reserve in British Columbia spread so quickly and fiercely that people scrambled to escape with just the clothes they were wearing.
And it is not certain everyone made it out alive, officials said.
By late Thursday, 24 hours after the first alarm, residents of the Village of Lytton and a reserve of the Lytton First Nation in the B.C. interior were still searching for neighbours and relatives, taking stock of what they had lost and searching for answers on what brought such devastation in so little time.
Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s public safety minister, said most homes and buildings in the town of Lytton have been destroyed by a fire that forced the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people, including the RCMP detachment and ambulance station.
Several residents remain unaccounted for, he said.
“The town has sustained structural damage and 90 per cent of the village is burned, including the centre of town,” said Brad Vis, MP for Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon, in a Facebook message. Nearby electrical, cellphone, rail and highway infrastructure were also damaged, making travel and communication difficult.
Photos show one of the town’s main intersections almost devoid of buildings, just littered with burnt debris and gutted vehicles where a village core once stood.
“I’m very worried,” said Rosanna Stamberg, whose son and daughter, Alfred and Marjorie Nelson, live eight kilometres from the centre of town.
“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.
“Or if they stayed home.”
John Haugen, a deputy chief with the Lytton First Nation, said there is “devastation and loss” on reserve land and officials are still trying to account for all its members.
Lytton is 150 kilometres northeast of Vancouver as the crow flies, but a winding, rugged 310-kilometre drive by car.
An evacuation order was issued Wednesday at 6 p.m., a day after the village posted a Canadian record temperature of 49.6 C as a heat wave gripped the province.
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, well over double the usual number.
At the time of the fire, Lytton had set records for high temperatures for three days in a row — surpassing the highest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas.
Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman said the fire spread so swiftly that within 15 minutes people had to run, leaving behind belongings and pets.
Scott Hildebrand, chief administrative officer of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said billows of smoke filled the air and buildings started to erupt in flames within minutes.
Many residents fleeing the town set out for Lillooet or Merritt, where emergency shelters were set up and hotels were asked to find space for evacuees.
Photos and videos posted on social media revealed the dramatic and horrifying scenes, both from afar and terrifyingly close.