Trial by fire continues for Lytton, B.C., its residents in limbo, buildings in ruins

LYTTON, B.C. — Denise O’Connor stands on the sidewalk outside her home of 32 years — only the home is gone and so is most of her village and she doesn’t live there anymore.  

“I had a wooden picket fence here,” she says, gesturing at nothing, “and right here was a step down,” she adds, advancing onto a single concrete step leading to a pile of rubble.  

O’Connor’s house burned down when a wildfire roared through the village of Lytton in the British Columbia Interior on June 30, 2021, destroying everything in its path and killing two people.  

The fire represented a dramatic climax to the heat dome weather event that a BC Coroners Service report says killed 619 people in the province that week.

For three consecutive days, Lytton set a new national temperature record, topping out at 49.6 C. The wildfire erupted the next day and Lytton’s fate became known worldwide, held up as a canary in the coal mine of climate change.  

Nearly one year later, most of the town remains a debris field, frozen in time.

In the fire’s wake, pledges poured in to build back better, with the village mayor predicting the process could begin in September. Instead, evacuees remain in limbo, saying they’ve received few answers as to why. 

O’Connor, a retired school principal, surveys her property. Mangled, rusted appliances are surrounded by decaying plaster and shards of glass. The perimeter of the home is outlined by its foundation and at the centre is a messy pile of red bricks. To the right, a cherry tree that O’Connor planted more than a decade ago stands as a charred skeletal monument overlooking the Fraser River.  

The first time O’Connor visited the site it felt like a dream — unreal and impossible. Now that she accepts it, she feels an urge to just move forward, and frustration at the lack of progress.  

“I have this vision of the town as it was, right? And I know it’s not going to be that,” O’Connor says, as she looks down the street to where the firehall, museum, public pool and Catholic church used to be.  

“I think it’s going to be a town I don’t recognize. But maybe if I’m here and it grows, and we see it evolve, it will be home.” 

O’Connor isn’t alone in wondering about the future of the village.  

When an individual experiences trauma, it can affect the sense of self.  

When disaster engulfs an entire community, something happens on another plane that experts say is more than the sum of its parts.  

— 

Gilad Hirschberger is a professor of political and social psychologyat Reichman University in Israel.  

He said that while individuals experience trauma when they have a brush with death, something else happens when catastrophe strikes an entire community.  

Hirschberger’s research focuses on larger-scale traumas like the Holocaust. 

But he said some of the same lessons can be applied to a localized cataclysm like Lytton’s fire. 

Collective trauma tears the fabric of society, creating a crisis of meaning, he said. It also creates an opportunity for groups to redefine who they are and where they’re going. 

“There’s potential for rebuilding and recreating meaning and identity and relationships,” he said in an interview.  

The sudden disappearance of the village centre — the loss of the post office, the grocery store — will have obvious concrete effects, he said. The collapse of this “scaffolding” shouldn’t be diminished because it’s the frame that supports the routines that make up a life.  

But what makes collective trauma particularly difficult, he says, are the more abstract losses. 

“All of a sudden there’s a question mark on this entire community. Are they going back? Are they going to continue to have the same relationships they had in the past? Will they disperse and find a new place to live? You know, community isn’t just living next to other people, it’s creating social bonds. It’s creating a network, this entire web of relationships.” 

One option is disintegration. Another is rebuilding in a way that makes the community stronger, rooted in the new bond of a shared experience that moves them beyond just friendly neighbours.  

Of course, timing matters. The longer it takes, the more likely a community will lose key members, or momentum to rebuild may be lost, he said.  

“I imagine that this community is at a crossroads at the moment.” 

—-

When Tricia Thorpe reflects on what was lost, she thinks of the community spaces and essential services that supported day-to-day life. 

Lytton used to have two grocery stores, now it has none. It had a farmers’ market, a pharmacy, a bank and a medical centre, all gone too. There was a coffee shop where you knew you’d see a friend. And outdoor benches where a few older men always sat.  

But for Thorpe, whose home burned down a few kilometres outside the village, it’s a mistake to think Lytton has disappeared. While the fire razed the village proper, which had a population about 200, there are another 2,500 or so people still living in the surrounding area.  

“People think Lytton is gone, but they forget that,” Thorpe said.  

The gaps are being filled, but there are still holes. Council meetings now happen on video. There’s a doctor but no lab or X-ray equipment. Even something as mundane as picking up mail loses its charm when the post office is replaced with a temporary trailer.  

“If you had a big parcel that you had to get into your car, the postmaster, she’d look at some young guy walking in and say, ‘Hey Joe, give Susie a hand with that,’” Thorpe said. 

“Now you can’t even buy a stamp.” 

Thorpe pauses to consider how her sense of community has shifted.

The downtown core is gone, she said, but she’s finding connection in other places. Thorpe and her husband are in a position to rebuild because of their property’s location outside the town’s boundary, within which rules prohibiting reconstruction are in force. She said she’s been moved by everyone who volunteered to chip in.

“We have been incredibly lucky,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of help.” 

Thorpe sees a difference in the way the fire affected those whose homes were spared. In some ways, she says, the loss of her home has forced her and her husband to live in the future.  

“Our past is completely gone. There’s only one way for us and that’s forward. It’s a completely new slate and we’re starting from scratch,” she said.  

“But there are a lot of people, they lost their social centre. They lost a shop or something like that, and they’re in this kind of weird twilight, not quite real situation. They’re in two worlds because they wake up in their bed every morning, you know, their house is the same, but the minute they step outside their door, the world is different. … I think a lot of people are grieving what was.” 

Another demarcation exists between the evacuees forced to leave the community and those who stayed.  

Ron Nicholls’ home was among the first to burn. On the day of the fire, he grabbed his garden hose and started fighting it until the flames hugged propane tanks and exploded into something ferocious. 

“There was just fire all over the place, so at that point we had to run for our lives,” he said. 

At 60, Nicholls thought he would spend the rest of his life in Lytton. He’d lived there more than 40 years and had no plans to leave.  

A year after the fire, he’s still in nearby Ashcroft living with his sister and turning his mind to a life elsewhere for the first time. His insurance only covers two years of living-out expenses and he’s starting to reluctantly accept the pace of recovery won’t meet that deadline.  

Nicholls said he believes he’s been able to rebound emotionally from the fire itself and losing his home. But he said he still finds it hard visiting the village and seeing it in such a state of disrepair. 

In his 36-year career with Canadian National Railway, he responded to countless train derailments where he said officials dropped everything to respond. He said he can’t understand why the recovery of Lytton isn’t met with the same urgency.  

Nicholls has returned only three times — once in September to sift through the rubble, once in February to meet with an insurance adjuster, and finally to point out hazards on the property to clean-up crews. When a fellow evacuee in Ashcroft asked for a ride recently, he found himself thinking it was too much.  

“It just absolutely devastates me to see Lytton in this condition and how badly it still looks,” he said. “For me, that feeling is more emotionally devastating than the fire itself.” 

Michelle Feist, another evacuee who lost her home, is living in Williams Lake and has only gone back once.  

The retired nurse moved to Lytton about six years ago, after her husband died. She bought a 620-square-foot brick home on a half lot downtown and set up a chair under a tree, where curious villagers walked by and introduced themselves one by one.  

“I found Lytton incredibly welcoming,” she said.  

After the fire, Feist was evacuated to Chilliwack, then moved into a trailer with her dog in anticipation of interim housing that never came. She believes her name is on a list of evacuees somewhere but said she has yet to receive a call offering support.  

At some point, she decided help was never coming. She drove that summer to the first place that wasn’t blanketed in wildfire smoke and has been living in Williams Lake since.  

Feist said she’s also letting go of the idea that she’ll move back to Lytton.  

At the same time, she believes Lytton itself will endure — her house there was built after a fire in the 1930s or 1940s burned the previous one down. 

Lytton’s history of disastrous fires makes it difficult to know exactly when. A local history book published in 1967 has a chapter on the 20th century titled “Fires — and a Rebuilding” that details a 1931 fire that burned down 28 buildings, and another six years later that levelled a hotel. A 1949 fire is described as “disastrous” and the book says the face of the village was “once more changed.”

“The heart of Lytton was its people and so many won’t be able to come back,” Feist said. “But because it’s a place that people have lived for thousands of years, there’s a certain — now this is where I sound like an old hippie — but there’s a certain weight to the land,” she said.  

Darlene Raphel, a member of the nearby Lytton First Nation, was evacuated from her home a few kilometres outside of town because of toxic debris that cloaked the landscape.  

For Raphel, life in Lytton means hunting, fishing, camping, collecting traditional medicines and growing her own vegetables. 

Looking out at the burnt landscape is heartbreaking for that reason, she said, but she said those activities are returning.  

“Lytton is just home, Lytton is everything to us. It’s our backyard, you know, we’ve got everything here.” 

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Jan Polderman has been dealt what many would consider a losing hand. As mayor of Lytton, he’s trying to lead the community through a crisis that dwarfs anything the rural council has dealt with before.  

“I don’t think in these disasters, you can ever have enough capacity,” he said.  

Polderman said he believes Lytton is on track to rebuild, it’s just going to take longer than many expect.  

The number of small steps required on the path to recovery is overwhelming, from getting safe drinking water back in pipes, to rewriting each bylaw after governance records burned.  

Work was delayed by atmospheric rivers and heavy rains in November, then extreme cold, then global supply chain issues. Every step requires another, like the interim housing that must be in place before construction workers can arrive.  

Lytton’s tiny tax base meant the village only had $1.2 million in a reserve fund. The first bill for restoration work came in October at $1.3 million, he said. The millions in funding from federal and provincial partners are appreciated, and crucial, but even paying tax on some of the funds required a trip to the bank for a loan. 

Polderman has faced criticism from residents who say getting evacuees home should be the top priority at a time when he’s introducing proposals for things like solar sidewalks at council meetings as part of the rebuild. But he said it’s his responsibility to think broadly. 

“I think one has to look at the future. Because when you look at the past, it’s sad,” Polderman said. 

Polderman also said he relates to villagers who thought the recovery would happen faster. 

“I think we all did,” he said. 

Right after the fire, Polderman guessed rebuilding would take one or two years. Then he started looking at other communities struck by wildfires like Paradise, Calif., Slave Lake, Alta., and Fort McMurray, Alta. They’re still rebuilding years later, he said.  

Some of those communities reached out to Polderman to share strategies, he said, but they weren’t necessarily possible to copy. In Fort McMurray, for example, less than half of the town burned and displaced residents could move onto other land in the vicinity, he said.  

The most helpful and resounding message was consistent though, he said.  

“This is a marathon, not a sprint.” 

Roly Russell, parliamentary secretary for rural and regional development, said he’s brought personal experience to his role as a provincial liaison on Lytton’s recovery.  

When his own community of Grand Forks, B.C., was hit hard by flooding in 2018, Russell helped lead the response as part of the regional government. He sees part of his role in Lytton as managing expectations.  

“Disaster recovery takes a long time,” he says. “Four years later, after those Grand Forks floods, we’re still very much in the thick of recovery.” 

Although Russell said Lytton has moved more quickly than others in some ways, its challenges are also unique, he said.

“When you have a disaster where 90 per cent of the structures, give or take, are destroyed, the process of navigating recovery there is really, really different than it would be in other situations,” Russell said.  

“I think everybody recognizes the challenges that have been placed upon that very small, local government.” 

Still, Russell said he believes strongly that it should be the community itself that leads its own recovery and defines its own future, and the province’s role is to enable it with resources. The way disaster changes a community’s character depends in part on the nature of the dialogue among residents going forward, he said.  

“(It’s) making sure that people recognize the ongoing value of that for helping define what the future holds for the community in terms of not just the physical infrastructure in bricks and mortar, but in terms of identity,” he said.  

Russell said it’s important to validate the fear and anxiety of survivors, as well as a stage of recovery referred to as the “trough of disillusionment” by psychologists. It follows the initial relief of survival when an individual or community is overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead to put the pieces of their lives back together.  

That’s also where important decisions are made that will shape the future identity of a community like Lytton, he said.  

“What it looks like is, I would say, very much still in flux in terms of the future.” 

For a local Indigenous leader, the recovery process has been an opportunity to exercise his own nation’s authority and show that it can get things done. 

Chief Matt Pasco, who chairs the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, was a vocal critic of the emergency response last year when he received a call from provincial officials warning the fire was threatening his cattle before they called about his people. 

Since the fire, the council — which includes Lytton First Nation — has worked to secure interim housing on reserves. It has also helped the village of Lytton speed its recovery process by streamlining the archeological assessment process, one of many steps required before reconstruction. 

For Pasco, the village is a colonial construct, albeit one that provides services to Indigenous residents. The recovery is an opportunity to redefine relationships in the region, he said. 

“It’s almost impossible to create change unless there’s some stimulus,” he said. 

—- 

Hanging on a wall in Richard Forrest’s basement is a photo of Lytton after the 1949 fire. It shows the charred ruins of a village that looks eerily similar to the wreckage today.  

Forrest is the chair of the commission for the Lytton Museum and Archives, which was destroyed in the fire along with the town’s acclaimed Chinese history museum.  

While the archives were digitally backed up on a server in a separate building, the precaution was futile because that burned down too.  

Forrest is focused now on how to protect what’s left. A few dozen items rescued from the rubble of the museum are laid out on his floor. Insurers have asked him to put a value on the artifacts and it’s a puzzling task.  

“See this? This is a gold scale,” he says, pointing to a rusted pan the size of his palm that was once a specimen of restoration.  

The scale could be replaced by a similar one from the same era, but this one was special because of its local use. It came with a booklet with records of gold panned in the area, but the booklet was burned too.  

A radio passed down through a local family was also damaged, and Forrest said an identical model wouldn’t hold the same inherent value. 

“Everything is special when it comes down to it,” Forrest said. “It’s the provenance that has value.” 

The oldest specimen is a chalky and unremarkable-looking rock.  

Once deep black, it is the shell-like fossil of an ammonite that helped researchers unlock the prehistory of the area as a shallow-water estuary, Forrest said. He’s sending it to a paleontologist in case it can be restored.  

The story of Lytton is much older than the village itself. At the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers, the area has been home to Indigenous communities for at least 10,000 years, Forrest said. Colonial communities that followed have made the decision time and again to stay, disaster after disaster. 

The persistence of human settlement is one of the things that set Lytton apart.  

It’s not insignificant, Forrest said, that more than 2,000 people are still living in the area without the village to support them after the fire.  

“We’re still here and we’re not going anywhere. And so, there is no way that it is not going to get rebuilt,” he said.  

“It’s not uncommon for old towns to burn. What’s a little more uncommon is that Lytton keeps coming back.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 24, 2022. 

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

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Categorized as Aesthetics

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