Bill Blair toured the southern B.C. community on Thursday, which is still in the process of debris cleanup and removal, nearly one year after the deadly disaster.
“I came here to assure the mayor, the councillors and community that we are working as expeditiously as possible to get money to the province so they can get money to this community,” Blair said.
“There’s a great deal to do but it’s going to require a significant commitment of resources and we want to make sure we’re here for this community.”
On June 30, 2021, a massive and unrelenting fire forced about 300 people to evacuate Lytton, and watch as the flames destroyed houses, a health centre, a post office, the grocery store and more.
Two people died, more were injured, and many residents remain scattered in hotels, with family, or in the handful of homes still standing in the community.
“I relayed to him our most urgent priorities and I feel confident that by September, our residents will be able to go back to their homes and that the village will be well on its way to being rebuilt,” Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman said, after touring with the minister.
“We’re sort of faced with the issue of our residents wanting to be back yesterday, yet as a village, we’re looking to be a town that is going to be here for 100 years. Those two objectives sort of clash at times.”
Since the disaster, the municipal, provincial and federal governments have all been criticized for the slow pace of Lytton’s recovery. As of Thursday, the site was still considered “toxic,” Polderman said.
The mayor has repeatedly explained that delays have been due to a number of factors, including 87 days spent waiting for toxicology reports and safe work procedures, and two months spent sifting through the wreckage. Catastrophic floods last November also wiped out nearby roads, hampering efforts, while the winter brought on “the biggest dump of snow” the mayor has observed in 33 years.
Earlier this month, the sifting and removal process was delayed further as some impacted homes were built on a culturally significant site to the Nlaka’pamux Nation, and the B.C. government has committed to identifying and preserving any archeological findings before rebuilding can begin.
The B.C. government has requested about $416 million in federal disaster relief for wildfires.
Blair said there are ways to expedite the processing of that request, and a good chunk of funds will likely be allocated to Lytton.
“We’re doing work together now to expedite an interim payment — as much as 50 per cent of what has been requested can be moved fairly quickly,” he explained. “I’ve got auditors on the ground and we’re working through, with the province and this community, to move on it as quickly as we can.”
In March, the B.C. government announced $18.4 million in new funds to cover the costs of debris removal, archeological work and soil remediation for the municipal properties, and properties belonging to the “uninsured and underinsured” in Lytton. Those funds were in addition to $9.3 million provincial dollars already provided.
Pierre Quevillon, who was displaced by the Lytton fire, said life has been “pretty tough” for the past 11 months. He no longer has access to a grocery store or restaurants, and will remain in a hotel until he can rebuild his home.
“Every day that I go in town and I see all those debris, I feel I’m in Ukraine,” he told Global News. “It was a war of fire that happened last year. It’s not a bomb, but kind of.”
Quevillon said many residents are “very sad” or “very angry” as debris removal continues in Lytton, aware that the rebuilding process for communities destroyed by November’s floods — like Merritt — has moved along more quickly.
“Why it went so fast over there and so slow over here? Destruction is destruction,” he said.