British Columbia

Lytton First Nation gradually returns home, as rebuilding begins 1 year after fire

A year after fire wiped out the Village of Lytton during B.C.'s deadly heat dome, the Lytton First Nation is rebuilding and providing an example of resilience in the wake of disaster.

Residents are moving into temporary homes, with permanent ones being built later this year

A girl gets her face painted during Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School. In the coming months, members of the Lytton First Nation displaced by fire in 2021 can begin to return home. (Simon Gohier/Radio-Canada)

It was a busy day of planning and celebration as members of the Lytton First Nation gathered at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School on Indigenous Peoples Day.

The building has served as a refuge for members who are still recovering from a devastating fire that burned down much of their community a year ago, during the deadly heat dome in the province.

It was June 30, 2021 when temperatures in the area reached as high as 49.6 C, setting the stage for a fire that ripped through the community, destroying homes and businesses in a matter of hours.

But nearly a year later on June 21, the mood at the school was celebratory as members reunited to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day — and made plans to return to the area for good.

The independent, First Nations-run school, located a few kilometres from the Village of Lytton, survived the fire, while many other buildings did not.

"It enveloped our whole reserve here," said Lytton First Nation councillor John Haugen, standing on the Klickkumcheen 18 reserve. Among the 33 residences that were once on this plot of land, he says, "we only had one remaining standing home."

In the Village of Lytton, many residents have been frustrated with the slow pace of rebuilding. Debris removal has taken time and charred structures still stand, with some residents wondering if they'll ever be able to return.

While roughly 250 people lived in Lytton, hundreds of members of the Lytton First Nation lived on 56 reserves spread along the Fraser River, outside municipal boundaries.

The Lytton First Nation has about 2,000 members in total, Haugen says, with about 900 members living on reserve and roughly 70 in the village.

After last year's evacuations, following the fire, the community was spread out further as people relocated to live with friends and family — including Haugen, whose home was destroyed.

'We are connected to the land'

A year on, though, people are returning.

Prefabricated offices have been set up near the school. Haugen says within a matter of days, 86 members will be able to settle in new temporary houses on the reserves that were impacted by the fire, where most of the debris is already cleared away. The construction of permanent homes in the area is set to begin in September.

The rebuild is being overseen by councillor Niakia Hanna, who says it has been a priority to get people back into the community as soon as possible.

"We are connected to the land here," he says. "People need to come home."

Hanna credits partnerships with the provincial and federal governments, and agencies like Interior Health, for the rebuilding efforts.

He also credits the collaboration among Nation members, who have provided input on what recovery will look like, he says.

"Sometimes it's a disaster that brings people together," Hanna said.

"I hope this is what will happen to us."

With files from Alexandre Lepoutre and Baneet Braich