'Abysmal attempt': B.C. wildfire response criticized by Indigenous leader

An Indigenous leader accused British Columbia's government Saturday of ignoring the needs of community members in Lytton while a wildfire levelled their village earlier in the week.

The accusations came as the BC Coroners Service said it was finally safe to enter the community to investigate reports that two people were killed in the blaze, which destroyed businesses and homes as it cascaded through the village days earlier.

The head of the Nlaka'pamux Nation Tribal Council, of which the Lytton First Nation is a member, said that as the fire tore through the area, the council was forced to try to save lives with little to no help from the government.

Chief Matt Pasco, who operates a ranch near Ashcroft, B.C., said the first contact he received from the government came 12 hours after evacuations began, and it was regarding his cattle, not about affected community members.

“It was an abysmal attempt at the very thing they're meant to do,” he said in an interview Saturday. “They had processes in places for our cattle but none for Nlaka'pamux people.”

Pasco said the government's shortfalls can be traced to the province's treatment of Indigenous peoples and lack of recognition of their jurisdiction when it comes to land management and stewardship.

“Yes, we do have coordination problems because (the province) is not set to take care of Indigenous issues or Indigenous peoples,” he said.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth acknowledged the government's shortcomings in a statement. 

“While there were challenging factors, early communication with the Nlaka'pamux Nation Tribal Council and the Oregon Jack Creek Band didn't live up to expectations,” he said.

He said the ministry has taken steps to address gaps in protocols that contributed to this situation.

Pasco said the tribal council is working with the Lytton First Nation and other affected communities to figure out how many members remain unaccounted for.

He said the most pressing questions concern what happens next for the community.

“It's so devastating that I cannot find the English words to describe the devastation. It's hard to fathom,” he said. “What does next week look like? What does the first long weekend of September look like when we have the children go back to school?”

New mapping from the BC Wildfire Service shows the wildfire has grown since Friday night.

Kaitlin Baskerville, with the BC Wildfire Service, told a public meeting Saturday that current conditions are comparable to mid-August.

She said there are four fires of note in the Thompson-Nicola region.

Mark Healey, also with the service, told the meeting that fire crews are working to stop the spread of the fire towards Spences Bridge as well as stop it from crossing the Fraser River.

Elsewhere, an out-of-control wildfire burning about 40 kilometres southwest of Kamloops, B.C., forced officials to evacuate more than 100 homes Friday evening.

Orders issued by the Thompson-Nicola Regional District said the fire in the Durand Lake area has started threatening structures and the safety of residents.

Federal ministers have pledged to support B.C.'s fire fighting efforts, with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair saying the government has been preparing for the wildfire season for the past few weeks.

The cause of the wildfire that devastated Lytton is under investigation, although Premier John Horgan said he had heard anecdotal evidence linking the start of the fire to a train running through the community.

The office of federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in an emailed statement that it would take necessary action should any potential non-compliance with Canada's rail safety laws and regulations be identified.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 3, 2021.