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'I was terrified': Lytton teacher recounts harrowing moments of evacuation

Cassandra Melanson had mere minutes to leave before a wall of fire engulfed her home. She was lucky enough to escape with a few belongings.

Cassandra Melanson remembers June 30 as “kind of like a normal day” — as normal as can be for a woman living at the edge of Lytton, B.C., a town that had broken Canada’s all-time heat record three days in a row. 

"Just my luck," thought the 25-year-old Edmonton transplant, who is not a fan of heat and came to the Fraser Canyon village a year earlier with her husky to teach at an elementary school.

Surviving the nearly 50-degree Celsius temperature meant waking up before the sun came over the mountain and constantly popping down to the river for a cool swim. 

Across the river, the George Road wildfire had been burning for two weeks, a “bloody mountain” during the day, Melanson says, “and at night it looked like the sun on Earth because of the flames just cascading down.”

“I felt like I was in hell. I felt like the world was ending. I was surrounded by fire constantly, trying to stay sane and safe and inside of my house,” she says. 

“It kept feeling like it can't get any worse — and then it would.” 

A WALL OF FIRE

In the afternoon, Melanson shopped for groceries and went to her doctor’s appointment. 

When she got home at 5 p.m., her dog refused to come inside. Melanson speculates that at that exact moment, a dog her husky loved had just burned to death on the other side of town.

“I think that could have been why she was on alert. Her ears are amazing,” she says.

It would still be an hour before Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman signed an evacuation order for the entire village.

Inside, Melanson remembers looking out her bedroom window. The smoke enveloping the town was starting to change. Now, an “oily heat wave” was rising into the air. 

She unplugged everything in the house. 

“It was scary but I knew they had rescinded the alert, so I was like, 'We're OK. We're going to be good,’” she recalls. 

Outside again, the orange glow of the sun had turned her house black and red. Melanson says she started to panic, and began throwing some of her most precious belongings onto the deck of her house.

On the first trip out to the car, ash started falling from the sky. Some fell into her eye, burning her, “like picking out a giant wasp,” she tells Glacier Media. 

She put on sunglasses and went back into the house for more of her belongings. When she came out again, a 15-foot wall of flame lit up the other side of the road near the train tracks. The fire had crept within 50 feet of her house, she says. 

“I kept telling myself, "It's OK, it's OK.' But when I saw that flame, I thought, ‘Not OK,’” she says. “That freaked me out. I started running.”

She stepped into her house one last time to see her living room catch on fire, something she attributes to ash blowing over from the wall of fire near the tracks — tracks she says hadn’t been cleared of weeds and brush for at least two weeks. 

The Transportation Safety Board announced Friday it had launched an investigation into allegations that a freight train may have sparked the fire, though no conclusive evidence has yet confirmed suspicions of residents like Melanson.

“I just shut the door and ran to my car,” she remembers, her last dash with a heavy cooler and a pile of belongings. “I felt I was like 'She-Hulk.’”

DRIVING ‘LIKE A MANIAC’

It was about 5:30 p.m. when Melanson got into her car. She started hyperventilating.

Melanson has asthma and the smoke had left her voice hoarse. So when she got to Main Street and saw people casually walking down the street with baby strollers, she says she could barely get any words out. 

People just stared at the fire engulfing her home. 

“I tried yelling to them, like 'You guys gotta go,’” she says. “They see it, there's just no sense of evacuation or urgency because there was no evacuation alert.”

“People are also seeing these helicopters. They're probably getting the same false sense of security I had.” 

She called her friend across town, warning him the fire was coming. Thirty minutes later — four minutes before the evacuation order had been signed — Melanson says she got a text from her friend saying flames had surrounded his friends as he fled.

By that time, she figures the fire had travelled along the train tracks that surround Lytton, wrapping the town in fire. 

Melanson says she now regrets not stopping to warn more people. At the same time, she agonizes over stories of neighbours waiting too long and losing a vehicle, family pet and even parents.

“Had I spent one more moment inside, my car could have been on fire, my dog could have been deceased,” she says. “I would have not been able to live with myself.”

Before Melanson left town, she says others had begun screaming and evacuating in a mad rush. 

“I hardly had a voice to talk to anyone on the phone. I was coughing like crazy,” she says. “There's no sirens. No alarms. No one texted us on the mass alert system. I thought we were OK.”

A HIGHWAY TO WHERE? 

Outside of town, Melanson drove northeast not knowing where to go or what to do. 

Fifteen minutes later she approached the Nicomen Indian Band on the side of the highway. 

“No one was evacuating because they only just saw smoke. But once I drove past them I could see the George Road fire had reached over the mountain and was about to wrap them in fire,” she says. 

“I was terrified. I was like, ‘The fire is going to get them too.’”

Chief Matt Pasco, the chair of the Nlaka'pamux Nation Tribal Council — which includes the Nicomen Indian Band — said his tribal council was forced to try to save lives with little to no help from the government, and that it took hours to hear from the government as evacuations were underway.

It's not clear how the Nicomen Indian Band escaped but in a July 2 Facebook post, Nicomen Chief Donna Aljam said no structure had been burned but that there was lots of smoke in the area, “whiter than black, like the day we evacuated.”

When Melanson pulled over she came across a woman on the side of the road with children in the back of the car. They were eating dinner when one of the kids had screamed, “Fire!” They left so fast, they didn’t take anything with them, says Melanson.

“She asked me, 'Do you have tissues?’

'No,' I said. ‘I’m sorry.’ That's when I just started crying,” she says. 

“I could just feel how stunned she was. She knows her whole house is gone in those moments.”

'I DON'T FEEL SAFE'

Melanson eventually drove on to Merritt where she stayed with her boyfriend for a few days to calm down. 

She says she would stay up until 3 a.m., obsessively listening to emergency scanners and watching the thousands of lightning strikes touch down on B.C. as the heat dome moved east. 

“[I was] making sure I wouldn't have to wake up in the middle of a fire,” Melanson tells Glacier Media. 

Unable to cope, the young teacher packed up her dog and half-full duffel bag of clothes, and drove all the way to Edmonton to see her family and take stock of what happened. 

On Friday, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District arranged for a coach to take two people per household on a drive-by tour of the town, offering them a first glimpse of the destruction. 

Melanson says she knows three people who went, but many more who couldn’t work themselves up to see the loss through the window of a bus.

“I know I'd cry. Every time I'm with someone from Lytton, I'm emotional because their stories are so much worse than mine. I had time to pack a few things, some dog food. Many people didn't have that. It hurts me to hear that,” she says. 

“I want to go back when I'm allowed to walk and be on the ground,” she says. “I don't want to take a tour bus like that. It just feels like torture.”

Melanson says she's planning on driving back to B.C. next week and hopes to walk in the ashes of her home. She’s hopeful a piece of soapstone she found in the exact shape of a human heart will have survived what the rest of her home couldn’t. 

“I really want to find it.” 

 But she also says the whole experience has left her with a sense of fear. 

“I'm not sure where to go because I feel that everywhere is a risk,” she says. “But I know that I have a lot of work to do.”

The burning of Lytton, she says, should act as a wake-up call for British Columbians that climate change is not some abstract threat in some far-away land. 

“It's not just going to be us. It's going to be multiple towns burning to the ground if nothing changes,” she says. “This shouldn't just be a sad story. This needs to be a big sign for change — on a grand scale.”

With files from Castanet and Canadian Press

Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everything in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email slabbe@glaciermedia.ca.