British Columbia

8 months after the fire, crews begin removing heavy debris in Lytton, B.C.

Tuesday was the first time officials in Lytton, B.C., were able to bring heavy machinery into the village centre to start removing debris after the catastrophic fire in June 2021.

Crews starting with municipal buildings but say 'everything's ready' to clear residents' land with permission

A property in Lytton, B.C., on Tuesday, eight months after the fire. (Benoit Ferradini/CBC Radio-Canada)

Standing on Fraser Street in the heart of Lytton, B.C., watching an excavator drag twisted metal from one pile to another, the scene doesn't look much like the milestone it represents.

For every piece the excavator drops, there are hundreds more like it strewn across the property next door. And the one after that and the one after that.

But Tuesday was the first time officials in Lytton were able to bring heavy machinery into the village to start removing major debris — the first time in eight months any of the scrap has moved, even if it wasn't going very far.

"I'm really hoping that we're going to start to provide a sense of optimism that we're going to rebuild," Mayor Jan Polderman told reporters on Tuesday.

"I'm hoping people dream about what this town can and should look like."

The fire on June 30 destroyed virtually every building in the village of Lytton. Eight months later, hollow shells are all that remain of those structures. On some properties, the only indication a house once stood is an exposed brick fireplace.

Even structures that survived the fire still bear reminders — street signs and lamp-posts are bent, having been warped by the heat of the flames, and road signs are scorched into the wrong colour.

The village is starting the debris removal process this week with five municipal properties, since it owns the land and doesn't need permission to start the work. 

Officials said crews are ready to go with debris removal on residents' private properties as soon as homeowners sign a right-of-entry permit to let officials onto their land.

"Everything's ready for us to begin the work on private property," said project manager James Heigh.

Denise O'Connor is pictured at Kumsheen ShchEma-meet School in Lytton, B.C., on Tuesday. She lost her home in the fire that destroyed much of the town in June 2021. (Marcella Bernardo/CBC)

Despite officials' optimism, some residents were frustrated Tuesday that debris removal has only just begun.

"It's been a long wait for today," said Denise O'Connor, who lost her home in the fire and has been living with her father.

"I'm hoping we can start building maybe ... I doubt it'll be this fall, but maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised. Who knows."

Polderman said $18.4 million in aid announced by the province Monday enabled the municipality to go forward with the work. The new money is designated for debris removal, archeological work and soil remediation for uninsured and underinsured properties in the village. 

It also includes funding for accommodations for up to 30 staff, consultants and construction workers on the ground.

Burnt homes and vehicles in Lytton, B.C., are shown nearly eight months after a wildfire swept through the village. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The Insurance Bureau of Canada puts insurance losses from the fire in Lytton at $102 million — significantly more than the originally estimated $78 million. It said the jump in cost was largely due to delays in rebuilding.

Since the fire, officials, contractors and volunteers have been on site assessing the damage and sifting through homes and businesses to locate personal items that were intact. The province said it has supported the village with rewriting bylaws after its governance records were lost in the fire.

More time was lost when severe rain caused flooding in November, and again by a massive snowfall over the winter. Polderman said the last month alone was spent sorting out heritage permits and how to finance the debris removal.

The new funding is in addition to $9.3 million announced last month, which included funding for core operations over the next three years to help village leadership focus on the rebuild without the pressure of trying to generate revenue. 

Crews started Tuesday by removing twisted metal from the old village museum. Polderman said they hope so save an old, reddish-brown fire truck that sits relatively unharmed at the back of the property.

Officials said they're aiming to finish remediation work by September, with permitting expected to begin in the fall. They couldn't provide a date for when rebuilds could begin.

"I'm really looking forward to people coming back and re-establishing their life here. That's been my aim for eight months now," said Polderman.

The Lytton First Nation, which was also severely affected by the fire, has already started on soil remediation and archeological work. 

Chief Janet Webster said Monday she expected 39 homes, which are being built as interim housing, to be ready for members to move into by the end of March.

With files from Joel Ballard and Ali Pitargue


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