RCMP said they believe the fire was caused by a mechanical issue. (Zoe Florence/CBC News via AP)
By Cole Burston, Postmedia Network
Hope, B.C. – The two coaches of an evacuation train from Hope, B.C., to Vancouver could be seen ablaze through the night smoke as flames shot up through the ski resort’s roof. The train was making its second of five daily runs of up to 144 passengers and vehicles for Inuit passengers to travel from Washington’s North Slope to Vancouver. The fourth train, carrying 23 passengers, passed through the area without incident Wednesday.
RCMP said Thursday morning the fire was caused by a mechanical issue, in a statement issued to reporters. Three Emergency Management B.C. crews were dispatched after 5:15 p.m. Wednesday and have been in and out of the area for most of the night. “A Forest Service camp was set up for those evacuated to have water and sleeping arrangements,” RCMP said.
Up to 200 passengers were evacuated to the Chilliwack Elks Lodge, a local emergency management spokesperson told Postmedia Network. Other passengers chose to stay with family, friends or at hotels.
Olivia Champlain, who was driving on the highway nearby, heard the fire and stopped.
“I drove up [the highway] towards there and the smoke was just way, way above your neck and it was so tall it was just crazy,” she said.
She’d gone to sleep at 5:30 p.m. thinking a fire was above her home.
“It was kind of like everything went quiet, but not really. It was just rocking.”
Champlain would later hear police had evacuated the train and was treating the incident as a possible terrorist attack. She was sure the noise was coming from the explosions of the railway cars that had been melted by the flames.
The evacuation was not a total wipeout for most passengers.
Lori Johnson, from Iowa, had just finished a trip down and back again in B.C. by ferry. She was staying at the Elks Lodge with her family.
“My next-door neighbour is an Ojibway and I thought it was inappropriate to be having a family reunion when our friends were headed to Vancouver,” she said.
RCMP spokesman Ross Hewitt said officials would continue to work to rescue passengers and “the operation is moving.”
The evacuation trains were the first product of the Northern Emergency Program, which provides new, weatherproof rail cars for bush evacuation. The federally financed program was started after wildfires raged through northern B.C. last summer, killing more than 80 people and damaging or destroying thousands of homes.
RCMP say the Red Cross will arrange for buses to transport the passengers once they are back in the areas they evacuated from.