British Columbia

7 months after catastrophic fire, frustrations mount in Lytton, B.C., over pace of recovery

Little has changed in the village since a catastrophic fire destroyed an estimated 90 per cent of buildings and homes last June. It's become something of a sore point for residents, who had hoped rebuilding would be in full swing by now.

Loss of town records and complex heritage proposal process among hurdles to rebuilding, says recovery team

Reconstruction work in the Lytton, B.C. has yet to begin, more than seven months after the village was destroyed in a catastrophic fire in June 2021. (Curtis Allen/CBC)

A fresh coat of early February snow does little to mask the charred remains of building and vehicles in Lytton, B.C. 

Apart from the snow, little has changed in the village since a catastrophic fire destroyed an estimated 90 per cent of buildings and homes last June.

Lots that once held homes are still a mess of blackened debris and ash. It's become something of a sore point for residents, like former mayor Jessoa Lightfoot, who had hoped rebuilding would be in full swing by now. 

"It's just a big empty pit down there right now," said Lightfoot.

"You can't get your mail, you can't go to the doctor, you can't go to the pharmacy, you can't meet your friends and you really worry about how long it's going to take to get people back."

Today Lightfoot is at the Lytton Resiliency Centre located in a room at Kumsheen ShchEma-meet School, the village's high school. It's one of the few places in the area where people can meet for a coffee. 

Volunteer Denise O'Conner is handing out bread to people who stop by, and offering them information on everything from how to pick up mail to where they can print out insurance documents. 

Volunteers Denise O'Conner, left, and former mayor Jessoa Lightfoot speak with a woman at the Lytton Resiliency Centre in February. (Curtis Allen/CBC)

O'Conner is living in a rented home in a part of town that was not destroyed as she waits for work to begin on her property.

"We're pretty frustrated. Seven months is a long time and for so many months, probably, you know, five months at least, we saw nothing happening," she said.

'A lot happening in the background'

The perceived lack of progress has tensions running. Since the fire occurred, the village has seen three recovery managers — the most recent one dismissed as the village changed its recovery model.

Mayor Jan Polderman declined an interview with CBC News, citing criticism from residents and not wanting to legitimize their complaints. 

The mayor along with two village councillors are leading the recovery process with the help of a team of advisers put in place by the B.C. government. 

One of the advisers is Ron Mattiussi, who has experience in disaster recovery. He was city manager in Kelowna during the 2003 fire and was brought in to help the city of Grand Forks after catastrophic flooding in 2018.

While those cities lost neighbourhoods to natural disasters, Lytton's village office with all of the village records were destroyed, along with most of the vital infrastructure in the town.

"The reality is that people are trying, it's just unprecedented events," Mattiussi said.

The Lytton Village office and all the town records were destroyed in last summer's catastrophic fire. (Curtis Allen/CBC)

Another roadblock is a complicated heritage proposal process that all properties must go through, he added.

The village of Lytton is located in an area of archeological importance sitting on an ancient First Nation settlement, meaning a permit is needed for any work that disturbs the soil.

"Unfortunately you don't see a lot happening on the ground, but there is a lot happening in the background."

Residents will likely soon see some of progress as the village started accepting applications for demolition permits just last week.

Insurance costs climbing

The clock is ticking on the recovery efforts, however, as expenses mount. 

Last month the Insurance Bureau of Canada announced the estimated insured losses in Lytton at $102 million in insured damage, up from the initial estimate of $78 million last August, citing delays in recovery and reconstruction.

"The longer that these delays go on, we know that some insurance policies have limits and these limits could be reached so people could be exhausting their insurance coverage," said director Rob de Pruis.

Even when rebuilding does begin, there's concern among residents that their community won't return to what it was.

"I'm really worried people aren't going to come back," said Denise O'Conner.

"Time will go by. They'll get settled in other places."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brady Strachan

CBC Reporter

Brady Strachan is a CBC reporter based in Kelowna, B.C. Besides Kelowna, Strachan has covered stories for CBC News in Winnipeg, Brandon, Vancouver and internationally. Follow his tweets @BradyStrachan

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