Station Chief David Butterworth and his crew arrived at the outskirts of Lytton five hours after receiving the call from Mission’s fire chief.
His phone had rang at 9 p.m. on June 30. He asked when they deployed, the answer: “‘Now.’”
“We were right at the head of it,” Butterworth said. “It’s pitch dark. We were one of the first trucks there.”
His team was one of two Mission Fire Rescue Service crews sent to Lytton to help contain the blaze which engulfed the small village in a matter of minutes. Each crew spent a week fighting the inferno.
At first light on July 1, his team set out, seeing “wholesale destruction” everywhere they looked.
“Any firefighter sees houses … lost to fire, and it’s a tragedy and it’s difficult, but to see it on this scale is something that I had never experienced before,” Butterworth said.
“Where there would be a row of houses, there would just be a row of chimneys – everything’s gone.”
All that remained of vehicles were metal-frame skeletons. The firefighters were first confused by square metal boxes, sitting like headstones on the place where people had lived – the remnants of washing and drying machines.
Toxic fumes rose from the rubble, poisoning the air, preventing those tasked with identifying remains from entering the village for three days, according to Butterworth.
“It takes an emotional toll. How could it not? First responders are still ultimately just people,” He said. “It takes a while to process it all.”
Mission crews were tasked with patrolling Highway 12 – selected as a defensible line – and containing flames as they swept westward, Butterworth said.
The firefighters are taught under the Incident Command System, the North American standard for managing emergency events. It’s an organizational command structure, similar to the army, Butterworth said.
As an engine boss commanding his crew, he reported to the task force leader (similar to a sergeant) commanding four or five fire engines, who reported up the ladder, and so on. Everyone knows their role, Butterworth said.
“You had all these fire trucks strung along the highway,” he said. “You have to pick your battles, it’s a very strategic thing.
“You can’t just go in there like a house fire and put it out, you’ve got to just basically limit its destructive capability.”
The structure allows the crews to be dynamic, switching priorities on a dime when new instructions come in, or when winds drive the flames in a new direction.
Forest firefighters are taught to always know their exit routes, and not put themselves in situations where they can’t react in time, Butterworth said.
“There were incidents where the wind would change … All of a sudden this area is now in danger,” he said. “We were going to head north, now we’re going to head south … We’d measure it in minutes.”
One that first day, Butterworth’s crew worked from 5 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.
“We try to put our headsdown in our tents to get some sleep,” Butterworth said. “And then at 11 p.m. that night (we were tapped out): ‘Okay, you folks gotta’ go. Your task force is going down here because we’ve got an emergency.’”
Butterworth said, in his experience, B.C.’s wildfire season is getting worse year after year. He said Mission Fire Rescue Service has been planning for extreme weather events as “the new normal” for years now.
There’s more training, he said, and the service recently purchased a new fire truck specifically designed to fight fires in intermixed forested and residential areas.
“We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have available to us,” Butterworth said. “If we had 15 fire trucks, I’d say we need 16, if we had 16, I’d say we need 17.
“We have so many family dwellings that are in amongst the forest, we have to be aware of it, and we need to have the resources.”
From his time in Lytton, the resiliency of the displaced citizens sticks in Butterworth’s mind. He said that even though they had lost everything, their priority was helping support the firefighters in any way they could, offering food and drink when they met.
“I was humbled by every interaction I had with the people,” Butterworth said. “For me, that was quite emotional.”
He said Mission should be proud of their fire department’s quick response to the Lytton disaster.
“It’s a great fire department. And I think that Mission’s willingness to answer the call on such short notice … speaks volumes about who we are as a community.”