Until this week, “Canada’s hot spot” might have seemed like a charming nickname for Lytton, B.C., a tiny town where summer temperatures soar.
But after a week of tragedy, the tagline has an ominous edge. Lytton broke successive Canadian heat records early this week, with temperatures peaking at 121 degrees on Tuesday afternoon. Then the fires swept in.
By 6 p.m. Wednesday, Lytton’s 250-odd residents had been ordered to evacuate by the town’s mayor as explosive wildfires neared the village.
As the smoke cleared on Thursday, local officials said that they still did not know the full extent of the damage - but that it did not look good.
“The fire has caused extensive damage” to Lytton and surrounding areas, local member of parliament Brad Vis wrote in an update on Facebook, adding that roughly 90 percent of the town was “burned,” including the city center.
Local councilor Lilliane Graie wrote in an email, which she said was sent on behalf of Lytton’s Mayor Jan Polderman, that most residents escaped with “only the clothes on our backs” and are trying to make emergency plans by cellphone.
“Reports are mixed and will be unsure until we can get back in to assess the extent of the damage ourselves but at this time it is believed to be catastrophic,” Graie wrote.
Thursday is Canada Day in the country, a public holiday, meaning few stores are open to help evacuees resupply.
On social media, residents offered accounts of their escape, and with cell service apparently down in much of the region, tried to find out what had become of friends and relatives.
Officials shared a link for evacuees to register for support services.
“Our poor little town of Lytton is gone,” one resident, Edith Loring Kuhanga, wrote on Facebook. “This is so devastating - we are all in shock! Our community members have lost everything.”
One video filmed by residents showed the village shrouded in reddish haze, with black smoke billowing from trees, buildings and cars.
Lytton weather station webcam went offline at 5:40 p.m. local time, around the time that a power outage hit nearby. The last weather reading from the station came just a minute later, with temperatures of almost 99 degrees and winds of 42 miles per hour.
Lytton’s climate nightmare comes amid a wave of hot weather across British Columbia. It is the result of the same “heat dome” caused by high pressure, which forces the heat down rather than allowing it to rise, in turn making the air even hotter, that has seen record heat in such U.S. cities as Portland and Seattle.
Lytton had set records for high temperatures for three days in the row - soon surpassing the highest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas, a desert city over a thousand miles closer to the equator.
The heat may have already had a devastating impact across much of British Columbia, with elderly and other vulnerable residents appearing to have been hardest hit.
British Columbia’s Coroners Service had received reports of 486 sudden and unexpected deaths between Friday and Wednesday afternoon, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a statement. The province would usually see roughly 165 deaths in a five day period.
Founded at the confluence of two major rivers during the Gold Rush, Lytton’s economy once revolved around forestry but it is now mainly a destination for white water rafting.
It routinely reports some of the highest temperatures in Canada, due to a combination of dry air and low elevation.
Polderman told a local radio station this week that he’d hoped the town’s “hot spot” slogan wouldn’t be quite so literal.
“I’d rather be known as Canada’s hot spot for education, health care, quality of life than for having the hottest temperatures,” he said on Wednesday.
Polderman made a quick drive into Lytton on Wednesday night after ordering the evacuation and told CTV News that the town had been “engulfed” by flames.
“There was smoke everywhere, the wires were down,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if the entire village was destroyed. “I’m just hoping that all the residents got out.”
By early Thursday morning, it was unclear how much of the town was still standing. A local ambulance station, health clinic, and about 10 houses had reportedly burned to the ground overnight, according to GlobalNews.
Lytton’s evacuation came amid a broader swathe of wildfires. British Columbia’s wildfire service currently lists six separate wildfires “of note,” which means they are especially visible or present a threat to public safety.
Two fires to the north of Lytton, centered on Sparks Lake and McCay Creek, had a combined area of 35 square miles, according to the wildfire service, with both classified as “out of control.”
Fire officials have said that it’s not yet clear what sparked the wildfire that tore through Lytton, but that it appears to be unconnected to the other ongoing fires in the region.