Lawsuit claims CN, CP railways at fault for Lytton fire

VANCOUVER — A proposed class-action lawsuit alleges Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railways caused or contributed to the wildfire that destroyed the Village of Lytton, BC.

The BC Supreme Court statement of claim filed Wednesday alleges the fire was set off by heat or sparks emanating from a CP freight train operated by CN employees on tracks owned by Canadian National.

It says the fire started at about 4:15pm on June 30, where the CN bridge crosses the Fraser River, and winds of up to 70km/h carried the flames into Lytton, burning the town in less than two hours.

With temperatures nearing 50 C, the lawsuit alleges the railway companies should have know conditions were unsafe to operate and that they failed to protect the town.

“The Province of British Columbia notified the defendants of extreme risk of wildfires, which was the highest possible rating according to the Canadian Forest Fire Danger Rating System,” the lawsuit says.

The RCMP, BC Wildfire Service and Transportation Safety Board are still investigating the cause of the fire.

The safety board said in July that it sent rail investigators to the scene after receiving new information about the cause of the fire from the Mounties and wildfire service.

The lawsuit says the fire wasn’t caused by a nearby forest fire or lightning strike.

When asked for a response to the lawsuit, CN said only that it had received the action and that an investigation into the cause of the Lytton fire remains ongoing.

CN issued a statement on July 6 saying it had investigated video footage posted on social media suggesting a train had caused the Lytton fire.

“After examining the evidence, CN has concluded the video does not show a train in or near Lytton at the time of the fire in the village. In fact, the video shows a train 45 kilometres south of Lytton, and the smoke seen in the video comes from a different fire that was already burning.”

Canadian Pacific declined to comment on the civil claim, but noted previous statements saying the fire remains under investigation and any conclusions or speculation about its cause or contributing factors are premature.

The company said in July that it inspected all CP trains that travelled through Lytton during the relevant time period on June 30 and based on their review, which included video footage, it found “nothing to indicate that any of CP’s trains or equipment that passed through Lytton caused or contributed to the fire.”

About 90 per cent of the village was destroyed by the fast-moving fire, including homes, businesses, the RCMP detachment, the ambulance station, the Lytton Hotel and the Chinese History Museum.

Two First Nations reserves bordering Lytton were also extensively damaged, the lawsuit says.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada reported the value of damage caused by the wildfire was an estimated $78 million for insured properties. It said in a statement earlier this month that about 300 claims had been made to that date.

While court approval is needed for a class-action lawsuit, the court documents say the representative plaintiff in the case, Carel Moiseiwitsch, lost her home and the graphic design company she operated out of the property in Lytton.

The statement of claim says CN Rail should have known conditions were unsafe to operate trains, including at higher speeds and without ensuring that CP Rail had installed spark arrestors and other systems less prone to igniting a fire.

It also claims CN failed to remove brush, shrubbery and other tinder-dry materials from around the railway tracks.

“Rail trains have been starting fires in Canada and British Columbia for over 140 years. Risk of fire caused by train operation is well known and understood by the defendants,” the statement of claim says.

The defendants conduct was “high-handed, outrageous, reckless, wanton, entirely without care,” the statement says.

In the days after the fire, Canadian Pacific pledged $1 million to support wildfire recovery efforts in Lytton.

The company said it was also working with the village and regional district to provide resources and logistics support in the development of temporary housing for families that were displaced.

The suit asks for damages to cover losses for property, housing, business income and pain and suffering.