Trial by fire: What a village in B.C. is teaching the world about climate adaptation

Damaged structures and vehicles are seen in Lytton, B.C., on Friday, July 9, 2021, after a wildfire destroyed most of the village on June 30.
Click to play video: 'Rebuilding Lytton for a much hotter, more dangerous future' Rebuilding Lytton for a much hotter, more dangerous future
WATCH: How the challenges of rebuilding a community are running up against the realities of climate change. – Jun 23, 2022

It might be a tiny community of only 250 people, but the village of Lytton is offering the world a monumental lesson in preparing for the realities of climate change.

On June 30, 2021, a raging wildfire consumed this village in B.C.’s Fraser Canyon in a matter of minutes. Ever since, the community has struggled to rebuild. The downtown core looks more like a war zone. Next to what was once the municipal pool, an “open” sign hangs precariously from a fence, seemingly frozen in time.

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Lytton’s municipal pool was damaged during last year’s fire and remains closed, despite a sign saying the opposite. Kamyar Razavi / Global News
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The tragedy in Lytton is casting the future of cities and towns all across Canada in a new light: How do they build, or in the case of Lytton, rebuild, for a much warmer, more dangerous world?

Almost a year after the Lytton fire, many residents don’t have homes to return to. That’s led to frustration, even anger. But the task facing Lytton is daunting given the sheer scope of destruction.

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“This was the perfect storm,” said Alex Boston, an urban planning expert at Simon Fraser University who consults governments on how to build more resiliently and cost-effectively. Lytton, he said, “had flooding that followed the fire. We were in the midst of a pandemic.”

Compounding the problems, the village’s records, secured in a fireproof vault, literally went up in smoke, leaving it with a painstaking decision that many more communities in Canada can expect in the future as they face flames and floods: reconstruct the past, or protect themselves against further disasters.

In Lytton, finding that balance has been extremely challenging.

Read more: ‘Helplessness’ in Lytton, B.C. says mayor, as residents question findings on devastating wildfire

‘Model community’

In the months after the fire, the village council unveiled a strategy to rebuild Lytton to the highest energy-efficiency standards possible, known as Step 5. It is a costly provision to make apartments and townhouses “net-zero,” meaning they don’t release any additional emissions through heating or cooling.

Simply put, Lytton couldn’t afford it, and the changes didn’t fly with residents, who are used to living in single-family homes, some even heated with wood before the fire. “To rebuild to all these standards, it just didn’t fit with our community,” said Denise O’Connor, a longtime resident whose home was destroyed by the fire.

Nonie McCann, who lives across the river from Lytton, remembers attending council meetings and hearing village officials make ‘grandiose’ plans.

“We don’t need solar sidewalks — we need to get home,” she stated, echoing what some residents were saying at those meetings.

The more ambitious changes were rescinded in February after residents submitted a petition arguing that plans for a complete overhaul would have “a direct negative impact on our financial ability to rebuild” as well as a “direct negative impact for a timely rebuild.”

For now, the village — which is perpetually cash-strapped — is proposing a more straightforward bylaw that would require homeowners to use non-combustible building materials, and to keep their decks, yards, and balconies free of any potential sources of fuel. But even that is coming under fire from residents who say they were doing those things before the fire anyway.

Therein lies the challenge for communities on the front lines of fires and floods: how to make long-term plans that are needed to deal with the climate crisis, while addressing short-term interests, financial challenges, and people’s resistance to change.

“As a species, we’re fundamentally wired to think really short term, and that’s really problematic,” Boston said. But, he adds, “to stay the same, you have to change.”

Click to play video: 'Lytton mayor on wildfire recovery efforts' Lytton mayor on wildfire recovery efforts
Lytton mayor on wildfire recovery efforts – Jun 15, 2022

Getting it right 

It’s this kind of push and pull that communities all over North America will be facing in the future: how do you build to mitigate and adapt to climate change, while keeping residents happy and not breaking the bank?

It begins with bylaws — legal rules that municipalities abide by to make their communities run smoothly.

In Lytton, writing those rules is Shannon Story’s job.

Story is a consultant with a background in municipal law who has been hired by the village of Lytton to rewrite its legal history. She’s been helping municipalities write their legal codes for 20 years, but has “never had to approach what I do from a trauma-based lens,” she told Global News.

Literally everything burned in Lytton, and people are understandably still reeling because of it.

The June 30 fire destroyed virtually every single record — nearly 700 bylaws and policies — which were kept at the village office.

Twelve months after the fire, burnt-out filing cabinets and bookshelves lurch precariously over the twisted steel and debris that still litter the site. The experience, Story said, is “unprecedented” in Canada.

Lytton’s village office, a mass of twisted metal and debris, on June 13, 2022, nearly a year after the fire that completely destroyed the community. Kamyar Razavi / Global News

“Municipalities start with bylaws and policies, and that’s how they are run,” she adds. Without those bylaws, you don’t have a community.

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“We are really starting over.”

Story said she understands the frustration residents feel about the delay in rebuilding, but without the legal framework in place, it’s very hard to get any construction started.

Click to play video: 'The painstaking work of rewriting all of Lytton’s records and bylaws' The painstaking work of rewriting all of Lytton’s records and bylaws
The painstaking work of rewriting all of Lytton’s records and bylaws – Jun 23, 2022

She views this as an opportunity to rebuild Lytton — Canada’s hot spot — as a community that can withstand the pressures of heat, floods, or whatever else climate change throws its way.

But the work in Lytton is, she said, that of charting a new path — which takes time.

“The last thing we want to do is rebuild the same, and set Lytton up for failure in, possibly, the very near future.”

Responding to tragedy

Two weeks ago, Canada’s Minister of International Development, Harjit Sajjan, came to Lytton to announce $77 million in much-needed support for the village, including $64 million for those net-zero, fire-resistant buildings.

Harjit Sajjan, right, minister of International Development, in Lytton, B.C., on June 14, 2022. Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

Less than 100 metres from where the minister stood to make his announcement, the town lay largely in ruins, sealed off behind two-metre-high fencing. The only people allowed in and out were employees of a demolition firm that has barely started clearing out the debris.

Ottawa is actively looking at different models to help communities respond to the ravages of climate change and to rebuild.

In the United States, when a natural disaster happens, FEMA, the federal emergency management agency, can immediately respond with attempts to carry out a coordinated response, including the promise of cash, quickly. As the response to Hurricane Katrina showed, the reaction can be doddering, but a coordinated response, well executed, is critical to a successful rebuild.

The federal minister is promising a change.

“Given the climate disasters we’ve had all across this country,” Sajjan said, “we knew we needed to look at a change, […] looking at models that work around the world, but what we need to do is figure out what works for us.”
Click to play video: 'Federal government announces $77M towards rebuilding infrastructure in Lytton, B.C.' Federal government announces $77M towards rebuilding infrastructure in Lytton, B.C.
Federal government announces $77M towards rebuilding infrastructure in Lytton, B.C – Jun 14, 2022

Governance challenges

In Lytton, a big part of the problem, residents say, has been political — notably,  the lack of consultation and outreach by village officials.

“We all agree that we want to be a more fire-aware and fire-safe community,” McCann said, adding that “the lack of communication and consultation has caused irritation over and over again.”

She describes “consultation” as a “conversation that goes back and forth” and said there’s been very little of that in Lytton. “It’s like, you have your opinion, I have my opinion, we hear each other’s opinion.”

“I haven’t seen a lot of that in Lytton.”

Bernie Fandrich, another longtime resident, agrees.

“Had there been a stronger group to begin with, mayor and council, I think there would have been different outcomes,” he said.

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If there’s one lesson to be learned from Lytton, it is that good governance makes a huge difference.

“What you need is immense collaboration between local government, provincial government, and other key players,” Boston said.

In Lytton, he said, “that relationship could have been much stronger.”

Read more: Lytton debris removal delays a result of archaeological importance, costing issues (May 3, 2022)

‘One step forward, 10 steps back’

Lytton is turning out to be not just a model for adaptation, but one for how to lead — and how not to lead.

It’s a tiny place, and staffing is a constant challenge. There were just three people on village council and a handful of staff trying to manage everything in the days and weeks after the fire. There was very little practical experience dealing with a natural disaster.

When asked what he would have done differently, the Mayor, Jan Polderman, told Global News, “I would have hired an experienced recovery director” and a team of experts.

Yet, Polderman insists he is not being “too ambitious” in his plans to rebuild, and pushes back against those who say otherwise. His message is to residents who have been critical: “step up to the plate, run for council.”

“It’s great to be a quarterback after the fact,” he said.

Polderman said there were factors beyond the village’s control, such as funding delays from the provincial government, or unresolved insurance claims, that hampered the response. “A lot of people look at the village like we’re the holdup. But, you know, when you dig down, it’s not the village.”

Now, finally, more staff are being brought on board to manage the village’s resources, and Polderman, who hinted he won’t be running for council next term, said he’s looking to bring on urban planners to help craft a vision to design a plan for what the new Lytton will look like.

There is hope in the village that the process will move faster, though residents don’t believe the mayor when he vows to have the cleanup done “by the end of September.”

As an external consultant, Shannon Story has observed everything from the outside, and said it’s one step forward, 10 steps back on a daily basis. But the one constant is that, irrespective of their views, the people who call Lytton home “really, really care,” and are willing to see the rebuilding through, no matter the delays and frustrations.

“The people of Lytton have barely got out with their life […] and I don’t ever begrudge them saying, ‘Hey, why is this not moving faster?’” she said.
But, she added, “I think it’s really important to do it right, […] and although it’s really hard to see that right now, I feel like in the future, the residents will look back and go, ‘OK, I get it, this is why it took so long.”

“That’s where I hope we reach someday.”