Fire destroys most of Lytton; anguished son recalls seeing parents trapped

Lytton resident Jeff Chapman could only yell and scream in despair as he watched the ­Lytton wildfire kill his mother and father a few metres away.

Wildfires have destroyed most of the village. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the fires, one spanning nearly 90 square kilometres, levelled most buildings in Lytton, situated where the Thompson and Fraser rivers meet at the north end of the Fraser Canyon. Farnworth said multiple residents are unaccounted for, but he didn’t give numbers.

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The Chapman family was getting ready for a barbecue at their Lytton home on Wednesday evening when they first saw smoke, then, moments later, flames.

Jeff Chapman went inside to get a bucket of water and when he came out, the fire was licking at the house.

He barely had time to help his parents take cover in a pit that was being dug to repair their septic system.

The air became very hot as Chapman helped his mother, Janette, into the hole. His father, Mike, a retired mechanic, climbed in beside his wife.

“They went down in there, and I pulled some plywood over,” said Chapman. “It was really only enough room for them. It was so hot, I didn’t know what to do, I just … ran …

“Now I feel like it’s my fault.”

With nowhere to take refuge, Chapman ran to the nearby ­railway tracks hoping the flames wouldn’t reach them. “The gravel was so hot. … I tried to find a place that wasn’t ­burning.”

Chapman tried to kneel and cover his head, but the gravel on the railway bed scorched him.

The flames blew up a power pole that then fell on top of the pit where his parents had taken cover. “It’s their grave now,” Chapman said.

When the fire eventually died down a little, Chapman ran back to the house. His truck appeared unscathed, and he was able to drive it out of town to a nearby fire station. He was later reunited with his brother, Matthew, who had left earlier in the day with one of the family’s dogs.

Chapman said authorities have been notified about what happened but wasn’t sure how or when his parents’ bodies would be recovered. They were both in their 60s.

Chapman and his brother have no family in the area, and they were uncertain what they’d do next. One of the family’s two dogs, a black lab, is still missing.

Jennifer Thoss spent much of Thursday searching in vain for her elderly tenants, who were on the phone with her when police came knocking and ordered them to flee to safety as the fire swept through town.

The Delta resident was on the phone with Henry and Donna Robinson, and with 911, at 5:25 p.m. Wednesday, she said, adding police had already come to the door of the home on one of ­Lytton’s main streets.

That home, she said, is gone. “I was on the phone with the 911 operator and I used another telephone to call the tenants,” Thoss said.

Thoss said she spoke to the couple for about 10 minutes, but hasn’t heard from them since.

She doesn’t know if the RCMP was able to get them to safety. She has called hospitals, evacuation centres and the RCMP, but no one has been able to find them, she said.

“They don’t have family and are completely on their own,” she said of her tenants, in their late 70s and early 80s.

A similar search ended in relief for Rosanna Stamberg, who found her son and daughter after hours of effort on ­Thursday.

But the former Lytton resident, who now lives in Enderby, still cried when discussing those who remain unaccounted for.

“Oh, that makes me feel so sad for the people who don’t know if their family members are OK,” Stamberg said.

“Some of the [residents] I’m closer to, I know they’ve made it out in there,” she said. “They’re all OK. But it doesn’t take away from the ones who are missing family members and they don’t know where they are.”

The fires levelled the village a day after it recorded Canada’s highest temperature on record, 49.6 C. Long-range photos of the scene show blackened trees alongside homes and businesses burned to their foundations.

Farnworth said the roughly 1,000 people who fled to safety when the emergency evacuation order was issued will find very little left when they return.

“Most homes and ­structures in the village, as well as the ambulance station and the RCMP detachment, have been lost,” Farnworth said at Thursday news conference. “I also understand that some residents have not been accounted for and their location is currently being investigated by the RCMP.”

The B.C. Coroners Service said it could not confirm any possible deaths.

Premier John Horgan pledged support for the affected residents, noting the fires remain active and the ongoing dangers of the situation cannot be overstated. Horgan, who said two blazes appear to have played a role in Lytton’s destruction, said causes have not yet been determined.

“Lytton has been devastated and it will take an extraordinary amount of effort to get that historic location back to what it was,” Horgan said, adding both the provincial and federal governments are committed to helping residents rebuild.

The show of support from Ottawa came directly from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a call between the two leaders earlier in the day, Horgan said.

An evacuation order was issued at 6 p.m. Wednesday. The community is grappling with a tremendous amount of “devastation and loss,” said John Haugen, a deputy chief with the Lytton First Nation. “It’s incomprehensible, people are so anxious and worried about what comes next for them.”

The nation, which has sent people to a recreational centre in Lillooet, is still trying to account for all of its members. Haugen said he knows of people who have suffered smoke inhalation and burns.

Edith Loring-Kuhanga, an administrator at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, said she and fellow board members had to cut short a Zoom interview with a prospective teacher Wednesday as the fire burned down their block.

She initially ignored a siren going off outside, only to receive a call from a school board member telling her to leave.

“He said ‘I’m down here at the fire and you got to leave, grab whatever you can quickly,’ ”
Loring-Kuhanga said. “It was just unbelievable. It was just a nightmare. So many community members have lost everything.”

Rosalin Miles, a member of the Lytton First Nation, has started a GoFundMe campaign to help affected community members.

“There are going to be people who are going to fall through the cracks who might not be able to rebuild, who might not have insurance,” Miles said, adding the money will be necessary for the many local residents living in poverty before the blaze. 

— Glenda Luymes, Vancouver Sun

— Hina Alam and Nick Wells, The Canadian Press

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