Days after a fast-moving fire destroyed up to 90 per cent of Lytton, B.C., the community’s mayor says he remains deeply concerned about the fate of residents who remain unaccounted for.
The BC Coroners Service said Thursday it was working to confirm reports of two deaths in the community, and sources have told Global News the death toll could climb.
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“It brings tears to my eyes,” a visibly emotional Jan Polderman said of the widespread destruction.
“Also the concern for the people that were in those buildings, and the fact that we don’t know if they all got out alive. That’s very, very hard to take. The emotions, you can see, are overwhelming.”
An estimated 1,000 people fled Lytton as fire swept through the community around 6 p.m. Wednesday.
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Polderman said it was only about 15 minutes between when he smelled smoke and began calling police and regional officials and the town going up in flames.
“It was harrowing as I drove down the main street,” he said.
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“It wasn’t like it went home to home. It was everywhere. You’re in a bit of a panic because you’re wondering what to do next. Do you keep going? Do you turn around? Your life is on the line at that point.”
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The speed with which fire ripped through the community meant there was no organized evacuation plan, leaving residents scattered in a half dozen nearby communities.
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That has created uncertainty about just how many people remain unaccounted for.
Polderman urged evacuees to register with emergency social services, so that officials can concentrate their efforts on searching for those who are truly missing.
Toxic smoke and other hazards have prevented the RCMP and coroners from accessing the community.
Once it is safe to enter, police will conduct a grid search of the townsite, and are urging the public not to try and skirt roadblocks to search for loved ones on their own.
Polderman said once it is safe to return, he’s committed to rebuilding the community.
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“We need to get the water system, the sewer system, temporary housing set up so that residents have time to rebuild,” he said.
Former Lytton mayor Chris O’Connor, who lost his own home in the fire, said that process will be arduous — but that he had no doubt residents would return.
“If we do things right we can build our community back to what it was — there’s a long history of people living in the Lytton area, the First Nations for 10,000 years,” he said.
“I can assure you this isn’t the first fire crisis where they’ve had to pick up and move their community. There’s a strong commitment to that place from First Nations and non-First Nations people.”
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