‘Fire war zone’: A look at the disaster that razed Lytton and plans to rebuild 1 year later

Click to play video: 'Lytton residents frustrated at slow pace of rebuilding'
Lytton residents frustrated at slow pace of rebuilding
It's been one year since a wildfire devastated the Village of Lytton, killing two people and leaving hundreds without their homes. As Emad Agahi reports, not much has changed since then, and residents are frustrated. – Jun 30, 2022

It’s been one year since a behemoth fire devastated the small southern B.C. village of Lytton and neighbouring Lytton First Nation.

Looking back, Naikia Hanna described it as a “fire war zone.” Powerful winds propelled flames through homes, businesses and critical infrastructure, burning them to the ground as smoke darkened the sky.

Click to play video: 'Lytton prepares to mark one-year anniversary of devastating wildfire'
Lytton prepares to mark one-year anniversary of devastating wildfire

After about 10 minutes, the Lytton First Nation councillor lost cell phone service. He recalled his own fear for everyone’s safety, and moments of bravery that inspired hope in the midst of disaster.

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“Everybody stepped up in the entire community and went door-to-door and house-to-house, picking up people everywhere to get them to the outskirts of the village,” said Hanna.

“People were just moving and moving, and everybody was helping.”

Click to play video: 'Rebuilding a community after a wildfire'
Rebuilding a community after a wildfire

The unrelenting fire killed two people, injured more and displaced hundreds, many of whom are still scattered in hotels, with family, or a handful of houses left standing in the area.

Stories have highlighted the resilience of Lytton’s residents and the strength of local First Nations, but perhaps most often, frustrations with the pace of the rebuilding and recovery process.

“When something like this happens, you want to get back home,” B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said a day before the June 30 anniversary. “I totally, totally get that. At the same time, it is a complex site. There’s a lot of work that has to be done.”

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Click to play video: 'The painstaking process of rebuilding Lytton'
The painstaking process of rebuilding Lytton

According to Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman, the process has been delayed by more than 80 days spent waiting for toxicology reports and safe work procedures, and two months spent sifting through the wreckage of the fire.

Catastrophic floods last November also wiped out area roads, hampering efforts, while the winter brought on “the biggest dump of snow” Polderman said he had observed in 33 years.

Archaeological work poses an additional challenge, Farnworth added Wednesday, noting that a community of 1,200 people predated the Village of Lytton and cultural findings must be preserved.

John Haugen, who was acting chief of the Lytton First Nation during the disaster, said he’s optimistic a successful rebuild will come to pass if everyone works together.

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“This lifestyle is embedded in our DNA,” Haugen told Global News, citing his community’s ties to the wind-dried salmon of the region. “We’re really connected to this area and we’re really connected to wanting to become a community again.”

He described Lytton as a “powerful place,” whose power comes, in part, from the strong winds and heat.

Click to play video: 'Lytton fire survivors share heartbreaking stories as school community fundraises'
Lytton fire survivors share heartbreaking stories as school community fundraises

To date, more than $135 million provincial and federal dollars have been dedicated to relief, cleanup and archaeological work in Lytton, along with the reconstruction of homes, businesses and public infrastructure.

That’s not including the additional millions accessible through Ottawa’s and B.C.’s pots for emergency preparedness, adaptation, management, and response for First Nations and municipalities.

In May, a report by the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction found the root cause of Lytton’s disaster was “easily ignitable structures and homes, and not just a wildfire problem.”

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According to its website, Lytton plans to become the first community in Canada to adopt the 2021 National Guide for Wildland-Urban Interface Fires for wildfire protection construction best practices. Its rebuild plan also includes fireproof and fire-resistant building materials, drought tolerant plants, photovoltaic road surfaces to reduce heat absorption, and other energy-efficient initiatives.

Its council has proposed a new building bylaw that would require new building permit applications to include a vegetation management plan and reduce combustible materials near homes. It would also require builders to glaze or heat-strengthen windows, close eaves, use non-combustible materials for roofs, doors, fences, and more.

“You can’t just build back what was, we have to build better and we have to build back better,” Farnworth said. “One of the challenges in terms of disasters — how we deal with them has been focused on response and recovery, when the reality is, it’s about understanding the risk and mitigation.”

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

Polderman and Farnworth have estimated Lytton’s rebuild will begin this fall.

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It will include two homes built by a B.C.-based company called Nexii, whose propriety material — Nexiite — is fire-resistant from the outside and inside, and tested for one hour in extreme heat. It will be the first residential build for the company, which to date, has focused on commercial and industrial buildings.

“We’re obviously testing a new way of building here for Lytton. These are prototype homes,” Nexii executive vice-president Gregor Robertson said in an interview. “Hopefully there’s opportunity to keep doing more of this, and make sure that Lytton gets rebuilt climate-smart and climate-resilient.”

One unit will go to Lytton and the other to Lytton First Nation, with each community deciding who lives in them. The homes are funded through a range of private and government sponsors, Robertson said.

In a news release, Lytton First Nation Chief Janet Webster said universally-designed and fire-resistant homes will keep “families closer to the main social circles in the community.” The nation will be researching other fire-smart homebuilding technology, she added.

Haugen said he would also like to see more members trained in firefighting and emergency response.

A rendering of a fire-resistant home built with Nexiite that will soon be constructed in the Village of Lytton and Lytton First Nation. Handout/Nexii

The B.C. government, meanwhile, is overhauling its Emergency Program Act. Earlier this month, it revealed its total funding plan — $513 million — for a new climate change strategy, including flood preparation and resilience plans and an expanded role for the BC Wildfire Service.

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According to a Federation of Canadian Municipalities and Insurance Bureau of Canada report, avoiding the worst impacts of climate change at the municipal level will cost an estimated $5.3 billion per year.

After the devastating flood in Grand Forks in May 2018, that municipality opted for what’s known as a “managed retreat” — spending millions to buy out some 90 homes, moving people out of harm’s way rather than rebuilding in it.

As the province prepares for increased frequency and intensity of disasters, Farnworth predicts there will be more conversations about such climate adaptation strategies.

“It became pretty clear that this was going to happen again and again in (Grand Forks), and it makes more sense to relocate,” he said. “But that’s a conversation, a discussion that you have to have with the local community, with the residents.

“Those things are not easy because you’re talking about moving somebody’s home.”

With files from Emad Agahi

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