The Current

2 months after Lytton, B.C., was destroyed by fire, its future is still unclear

It's been more than two months since the Lytton Creek wildfire tore through the Fraser Canyon, displacing hundreds. Though some have been able to return home, the town itself remains behind barricades, and residents are only now being allowed back to sift through the rubble.

As rebuilding plans begin before some residents have even been allowed back, many feel stuck in limbo

Don Glasgow sifts through the wreckage of his former home, which he lost to the Lytton Creek Fire in June. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

It's a cool, overcast day in late August at the confluence of B.C.'s Fraser and Thompson rivers, and Don Glasgow is hard at work, clearing debris with a backhoe from his burned-out house, just north of the village of Lytton.

"It feels good to keep working a little bit each day," he told The Current. "Makes a difference."

The cooler weather is a welcome reprieve. The entire town — and much of the surrounding countryside — burned to the ground on June 30, just days after hitting 49.6 C, the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada. Like hundreds of others, Glasgow and his wife Tricia Thorpe saw their home razed, and lost dozens of animals to the fire.

"It was idyllic," Thorpe said of their former hobby ranch, nestled on a plateau overlooking Botanie Rock. She's hard at work alongside her husband, digging fence posts.

"We were both retired. We had spent the last, what, 10, 12 years making it exactly like we wanted to. Now we're starting again."

The town of Lytton, B.C., sits at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers. The population is less than 250, but it acts as a service hub for the nearly 2,000 residents of the surrounding area, including several First Nations. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

It's been more than two months since the Lytton Creek fire tore through the Fraser Canyon, killing two people and displacing hundreds.

Nearly 800 residents registered with B.C. Emergency Support Services in the aftermath, plus nearly another 500 from the Lytton First Nation. Many of those living outside of the village, or those whose homes weren't directly affected by the fire, have been able to return. But the village itself remains behind barricades, and as of early September, residents are only just starting to be allowed back in phases, to sift through the rubble.

Residents left frustrated

Many residents remain scattered across the province. Gordon Murray and his partner Carel Moiseiwitsch are living with family in East Vancouver after losing their home in Lytton.

"It's still pretty surreal," said Murray. "It seems very hard to kind of grasp it in any kind of solid way."

Carel Moiseiwitsch and her partner Gordon Murray have been living in a one-room studio in Vancouver since losing their Lytton, B.C., home to the fire more than two months ago. The shirts Gordon is wearing are some of the only things he managed to save. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Murray will be allowed to return in the coming days, but has been frustrated by what he sees as a lack of clear communication from the village's government.

Why were residents of Monte Lake, he wondered, allowed back into their homes just days after fire tore through that community, yet for more than two months, he was still being told returning to his home would be unsafe?

Jan Polderman is the mayor of Lytton, a part-time job that pays about $20 a day. Though his home survived the fire, he said he understands the frustration of residents like Murray.

"They're seeing [people drive through] downtown," he said, referencing the recently reopened Highway 12, "but [are being told] it's too dangerous for them to go back to their own properties. I'd be upset about that as well."

Mayor Jan Polderman said he's focused on efforts to lay the groundwork for the Lytton of the future. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Polderman said the main delay was waiting for a safety report from B.C.'s Ministry of Environment, which it received on Sept. 3, before deciding to allow residents to return. In the meantime, the town sat surrounded by blue fencing — and security guards making sure no one stops along the highway, or tries to get in. Though residents are being allowed back to view their property in stages, the security measures remain.

'A town of the future'

Katrina Sam and her partner Joseph Justice have been living in a fifth-wheel parked outside Sam's mother's house, just up the hill from Stein Valley Nlaka'pamux School, where Sam has taught preschool for 23 years. They too lost their home in the fire.

Joseph Justice and his partner Katrina Sam lost their home in the Lytton Creek fire, but are eager to get back. The Stein Valley Nlaka'pamux School, where Sam teaches preschool, is seen in the background. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

"In minutes, I lost it all," Justice said. "That was my grandparents' home.... I was raised in that house [for] 53 years."

But despite the loss, Sam and Justice are eager to return home and rebuild. They have no intention of leaving the community they've called home their entire lives.

"We got a really good spot there, [overlooking] the two rivers and the bridge, and the beautiful mountains," Justice said, wistfully. "I cannot wait to get back to where I grew up."

The mountainsides around Lytton, B.C., show the extent of the fire that swept through the valley the night of June 30 — just days after the town hit the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada, close to 50 C. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Polderman and his council are already in the early stages of planning the rebuilding process — and Polderman has an ambitious vision.

"What I'm hoping to see is a town of the future," he said. "A town that is as fire resistant or fireproof as possible, that is less dependent on outside energy sources to produce the heat and the cooling needed to keep people comfortable in their houses."

He hopes a rebuilt Lytton could become a model for other towns.

Mistakes of the past

But not everyone is on board with that vision. Some residents have raised concerns about a perceived lack of consultation, and the affordability of rebuilding to such standards, particularly for those with no insurance. 

Murray is worried the plan will simply repeat the mistakes of the past, and isn't meaningfully incorporating the local First Nations and their knowledge of the land.

Though downtown Lytton, B.C., remains closed, cleanup work is well underway on outlying properties. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

"It seems to me that the way they're thinking about it is, how can we recreate the village kind of in stasis, so that it looks the way it was, but it's fireproof," he said. "There doesn't seem to be a kind of deeper thinking going on about, how can we actually do this in a way that acknowledges the land and the people that are there."

"They seem to be skipping a lot of steps and just saying, we want to do it the same way. And so far that hasn't worked very well," he said, noting that colonial Lytton has now burned down a total of four times since its founding about 150 years ago.

Polderman acknowledged the community's concerns, but said it's still too early in the planning process for broader consultation.

"It's sort of like complaining about the car before you get the wheels and the tires on it," he said. He noted that months have passed, "but when you look at, Fort McMurray, Slave Lake and a number of these other communities [that saw major fire damage], these rebuilds take a couple of years."

Freight trains are a common site in Lytton, B.C., with the railroad running directly through the Fraser Canyon town. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Moiseiwitsch, Murray's partner, is ambivalent about returning at all. A visual artist, she lost an entire lifetime of work in the fire, managing to save only a sketchbook. She dearly misses the striking landscape — but returning might just be too much to bear.

"Having faced that fire once, I'm not sure I'd ever want to risk that again," she said.

Glasgow and his wife Tricia Thorpe lost their home and many of the animals from their ranch just outside of Lytton, B.C., but they're already hard at work rebuilding. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

But for others like Glasgow, rebuilding is not a matter of if, or even how — just when.

"Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal," he said.

His former home may look like a burned-out crater today, but he and Thorpe already know exactly where their new living room will go.

"I belong here, and when I die, bury me here," he said. "There's nothing more to say. I'm part of the land. This is where I'm going to be."

Though it will take decades to fully recover, new growth is already visible in the charred landscape near Lytton, B.C. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Written by Matt Meuse. Produced by Liz Hoath, Matt Meuse and Joana Draghici.

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