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UPDATE: RCMP probing ‘possible criminality’ in fatal Lytton wildfire

A fast-moving wildfire has destroyed most of the village
Damaged structures and vehicles are seen in Lytton, B.C., Friday, July 9, 2021, after a wildfire destroyed most of the village on June 30. RCMP have set up three security checkpoints around Lytton, B.C., after residents were forced to escape a fast-moving wildfire that destroyed most of the village. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The cause of the devastating Lytton wildfire remains unknown but RCMP are considering “possible criminality” and looking at compliance or regulatory impacts in relation to the blaze.

Mounties and the BC Wildfire Service said Monday that they have completed a “fulsome” search of two areas of interest and spoken to “several” witnesses as part of the probe into the devastating wildfire that destroyed most of Lytton on June 30.

RCMP said that “physical and digital forensic evidence” has been collected from the area with the assistance of the BC Wildfire Service and the RCMP Forensic Search and Evidence Recovery Team.

Investigators are focused on a parking lot and park area at the end of River Drive towards the south end of Lytton. RCMP said this area provides access to a foot and rail bridge that crosses the Fraser River

“The investigation is looking at all movements and actions of any individuals, vehicle traffic and a southbound freight train that were all in the area around 4:30 p.m.,” the press release stated.

According to Kurtis Isfeld, deputy director of provincial operations at the BC Wildfire Service, said that fire investigators are hard at work but that due diligence must be done before coming to any decisions.

Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs of the B.C. RCMP’s criminal operations division said that the fire remains a priority for police.

“We have heard the concerns of those impacted and understand the importance of having answers around how and why the fire started,” Stubbs said.

“While significant progress has been made in the past 12 days by the dedicated investigators and agencies assigned to this case, the exact cause has not yet been determined.”

The Transportation Safety Board is working on a separate but parallel investigation to assess the potential involvement of a freight train in causing the blaze.

RCMP have set up three security checkpoints around the village, according to Supt. Ray Carfantan. Carfantan noted that in addition to the checkpoints, roving patrols are ensuring crews can gain access to restore services in Lytton, including hydro and phone lines, while people who are not required to be there are kept out.

Carfantan told a news conference Sunday that 911 service is now available and the former non-emergency number for the RCMP has been rerouted to Lillooet, about 60 km northwest of the community.

He said police have followed up on more than 15 missing-person reports since the fire on June 30 killed two people, but everyone from in and around the town in the Fraser Canyon was located and is safe.

“We are aware of the possibility that there could be someone still left unaccounted for, and therefore if you have not been able to find a loved one please call or attend your local or nearest RCMP detachment to report that person as missing.”

The RCMP and BC Coroners’ Service are continuing to investigate the two fatalities.

READ MORE: Lytton residents left homeless after fatal wildfire get 1st look at devastation

Hot and dry conditions are persisting in parts of southern British Columbia while cooler temperatures are helping crews suppress wildfires in the north.

Fire information officer Taylor Colman of the BC Wildfire Service said 67 fires were classified as out of control on Sunday, but crews had not yet been able to evaluate the newest ones.

Colman said 306 fires were burning across B.C., most of them in the Kamloops and Cariboo fire centres.

The Sparks Lake fire, in the Kamloops fire centre, was the largest in the province at 402 square kilometres, but people were not at risk in the rural area.

On Sunday, 132 addresses in the Whitecroft community near Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality were evacuated due to the Embleton Mountain fire which covered about 1.5 square kilometres. The resort community of Sun Peaks was also placed under an evacuation alert and visitors were asked to stay away.

Brandi Schier, a spokeswoman for the municipality’s emergency operations centre, said firefighters from the resort town were helping crews from the BC Wildfire Service battle the blaze.

The Thompson-Nicola Regional District, meanwhile, issued an evacuation alert for residents of nearby Heffley Lake, and Schier said that covered 156 addresses.

Schier said only residents were being permitted to enter the popular tourist destination.

“We’re just asking that people put a pause on those plans right while the situation is taken care of,” she said.

BC Wildfire Service information officer Noelle Kekula said crews battling a wildfire near the Okanagan community of Vernon had to deal with drones in the area on Saturday, forcing them to shut down operations for two hours.

“I know everyone’s curious and everyone has drones, but it’s illegal to operate a drone in and around a wildfire,” she said.

“Please keep your drones off our wildfires because it has significant impact to firefighting efforts.”

Colman said so far this season, lightning has sparked 42 per cent of fires while 40 per cent of them have been caused by humans. The rest are still being investigated.

The federal and provincial governments said Sunday they will match every dollar donated to the Canadian Red Cross for people affected by the wildfires, which they said means a $1 donation will become a $3 donation. The matching donations will be retroactive to include those received since July 3, when the Red Cross BC Wildfire Appeal fund began.

READ MORE: Canada, B.C. to match donations to Red Cross for those affected by devastating wildfires

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver

The Canadian Press