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Transport Canada slows speed limit of trains in areas facing high fire risk to reduce chances of sparking a blaze

A rail bridge damaged by fire is seen in Lytton, B.C., on July 9, 2021, after a wildfire destroyed most of the village on June 30.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Transport Canada has ordered new safety measures for rail operators nationwide aimed at reducing the risk of wildfires after speculation that a passing train sparked the blaze that destroyed the village of Lytton, B.C., and killed two people.

The order, which came into effect Sunday morning and will remain in place until Oct.

31, requires railway companies to limit the speed of trains in all areas of the country facing extreme fire risk. Railways will also have to implement a fire-risk mitigation plan within the next two weeks.

The federal department issued the order amid an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board, or TSB, into whether a freight train caused the fire that destroyed most of Lytton. The fire followed an intense heat wave in which temperatures in the community hit almost 50 C, setting a national record and prompting dire warnings about the worsening effects of climate change.

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The directive notes that “combustible material,” including vegetation alongside railway tracks, “has a fast burning rate and could readily ignite.”

The recent heat wave has significantly increased the fire risk across Western Canada, with British Columbia’s wildfire season already the most destructive in recent memory.

As of Sunday, there were 301 active fires burning across B.C., including 22 considered “of note” because of their size or their proximity to people and buildings. So far this year, more land in B.C. has already been burned than the previous two years combined.

There were 83 active fires in Alberta as of Sunday, nine of which were considered out of control. The fire risk was listed as high or extreme in most of north-central Alberta.

Trains have been a source of fire ignitions in Canada since the railways were first constructed, said Lori Daniels, a professor in the department of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia.

During hot, dry weather conditions, the friction caused by a train going over tracks and sometimes debris, as well as braking, can cause sparks to fly.

“We still have eight weeks left in our fire season and there’s nothing in the forecast to suggest this fire season’s going to calm down,” Prof. Daniels said.

She said slowing down trains reduces the chance of the friction or sparks coming off the rails. “It becomes very important to know what is the vegetation immediately surrounding the train tracks,” Prof. Daniels added.

Canadian National Railway Co. was ordered to pay more than £16-million in costs and penalties after sparking a fire south of Lytton in 2015.

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Ontario changed its Forest Fires Prevention Act in 2017 to hold railway companies liable if a fire starts within 15 metres of a track unless the rail operator can prove otherwise.

In addition to the new nationwide rules, Sunday’s order lays out a number of specific measures for rail lines running through Lytton.

CN and Canadian Pacific Railway Co. both operate in the region, which is an important transportation corridor connecting to the Port of Vancouver and, in CN’s case, the Port of Prince Rupert.

The measures introduced Sunday require CN and CP to ensure a 60-minute response time to any fires detected along rail lines running through the Lytton area during times of extreme fire risk. The rules also call for at least 10 fire detection patrols every 24 hours on tracks running through Lytton and makes conductors responsible for reporting fires on those lines. Combustible materials, including vegetation and oil accumulation, must be cleared.

CP spokesperson Andy Cummings said in an e-mail that the railway “will fully comply” with the Transport Canada directive.

CN spokesperson Mathieu Gaudreault said the company is co-operating with the TSB investigation and is engaged with the relief effort under way in Lytton.

“As always we will continue to strictly follow protocols and regulations when operating,” Mr. Gaudreault said in an e-mail.

There has been widespread speculation among Lytton residents that the fire was caused by a passing train, and TSB chair Kathy Fox has said there are videos that appear to show smoke coming from trains in the region. On Friday, railway traffic around Lytton was halted for 48 hours as residents were given temporary access to the town to observe the damage.

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First Nations leaders in the area have said they are prepared to block trains if railway companies and the provincial government do not address their concerns about recovery plans for their communities and rail traffic in the region.

Sunday’s order requires CN and CP to consult with Indigenous governments and governing bodies near Lytton regarding the presence of fire hazards in the area.

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