A year ago today, something triggered a fire less than two metres from a rail line outside of the town of Lytton, B.C.
Within minutes, homes along the town’s southern limits were engulfed in flames.
When Cassandra Melanson’s living room caught fire, she fled with her dog. It came so fast that on the street, people were walking by as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
“I tried yelling to them, like 'You guys gotta go,’” she said in an interview with Glacier Media last summer. “They see it, there's just no sense of evacuation or urgency because there was no evacuation alert.”
According to an investigation into the fire released in May 2022, the fire spread through the village in four separate paths — the wind-blown embers of one burning building igniting the next.
Lytton’s mayor issued an evacuation alert at 6 p.m. But by then, the fire had spread to at least 20 buildings, eventually killing an elderly couple as their son tried to flee and decimating 151 homes and businesses. Over 90 per cent of the town burned in a devastating example of how climate change can drive tragedy.
A day before the fire, a record heat dome made 150 times more likely due to climate change, scorched the town, setting Canada’s all-time temperature record at 49.6 Celsius.
In an international attribution study released weeks after the heat dome, scientists found such heat waves are expected to return to the province as often as every five years by 2040. Compounding that risk, fire ecologists warn of a “global wildfire crisis” likely to only get worse in places like British Columbia in the coming decades.
Glacier Media caught up with Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth to understand how the provincial government is helping Lytton residents still struggling to rebuild a year after the fire.
But also, what is being done to prevent such a disaster from happening again.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
The rebuilding process in Lytton has been described by the vice-president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada as “unlike any post-disaster reconstruction effort in Canadian history.”
Would you agree with this assessment? And, if so, what has made rebuilding efforts in Lytton particularly unique and challenging?
It is unlike any disaster that we have seen, certainly in this province and quite possibly in the country.
For one, it was the total devastation of the community.
[The] Fort McMurray [wildfire of 2016] was huge devastation, but the basic municipal infrastructure was still there, still able to function. That was not the case in Lytton.
At the same time, it's also an incredibly important archaeological site with a history of occupation going back from 10,000 years before the village.
The fire event, followed by the atmospheric river, which had a significant impact on debris removal… [and] non-insured and underinsured properties.
And so it is a complex location. But that being said, I think we are all working together to get Lytton rebuilt.
Why did rebuilding efforts — even just debris removal — take so long to get going?
There's a number of factors in place.
First, because it's an archaeological site. Each of the houses will have to get an archaeological permit, whether they’re insured or underinsured, and that’s about $10,000 each. It’s not covered by insurance.
So we've worked with the insurance company to come up with the best way to deal with it. So the province put everything under one permit [and] streamlined it in a way that doesn't impact the individual property owners.
The province's bearing all of that cost and all of that work. So that's underway.
At the same time, because it's also an old community, there's lots of toxic materials and it has to be removed — asbestos and things such as that.
We’re working with a community that has no municipal infrastructure. It has lost all its records, all its bylaws.
It’s a small community, and so we have to ensure that the support staff there get backing to allow them to do that.
And then to identify what's the best way to rebuild… The expectation is that the residents are going to be able to start rebuilding in September.
The recent announcement that we've just [committed] $21 million to the village of Lytton is going to allow them to rebuild that municipal infrastructure such as the village office, the water and sewer infrastructure.
What lessons have provincial government officials learned from the aftermath of the Lytton wildfire and the recovery efforts?
Building back better, building more resilient communities, it's why we are overhauling the Emergency Program Act to bring it up to date.
One of the issues around disasters in this province, which goes back decades and in many other jurisdictions, has been... about response to the events and the recovery from the event. It's not been about understanding the risks and the mitigation that can take place ahead of time.
It's why we've made improvements in terms of moving the BC Wildfire Service to year-round operation as opposed to just seasonal. It's why we're investing with local governments in terms of better understanding the risks.
There's a significant body of work that is already underway. And for Lytton, it is the importance of ensuring that those supports are there.
[Support after a disaster] used to be 72 hours, or at least for a short time. Now we know that the support is going to have to be in place for a much longer period of time — in some cases, it's going to be over a year.
Those are huge changes from the way that we operated before.
How long is it going to take your government to make that bigger institutional shift from fighting fire to preventing it through things like cultural burning, or removing billions of tons of forest debris from our forests?
The work is underway. I think the start of that was the 2017 wildfires that moved to overhauling the Emergency Program Act, the adoption of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
In each of those years, we’ve been making changes: increasing the funding for local governments for better emergency preparedness, moving the [BC] Wildfire Service [year-round], the floods and diking strategy work is currently underway — [they] are all part and parcel of that work that we know has to be done.
This is not something that's going to be, you know, a one- or two-year project. This is work that is going to take a long time, year after year after year.
Clearly, the Lytton fire shows that we are behind. What does your government need to accelerate that work?
We have been accelerating that work.
Lytton last year — one of the key things we decided needed to be done was moving the fire service to year-round as opposed to a more seasonal approach that has been in place.
The decisions that we need for our future have been accelerated.
Editor's note: After the interview, a BC Wildfire Service spokesperson also provided some details on what has been done in B.C. over the past year to protect communities from fire.
The province spent $1.2 million to plan and carry out cultural and prescribed burns on Crown land. That does not include burning on First Nations reserves or the cost for BC Wildfire Service firefighters who helped.
“The ministry has partnered with or assisted First Nations on burn project implementation throughout B.C., including in the Fraser Canyon, the Okanagan, the Kootenays, the Cariboo and Chilcotin and the Pemberton Valley,” wrote the spokesperson in an email.
This year, the Ministry of Forests is tracking the burning of 9,100 hectares of planned burns across 69 projects. That’s up from 33 planned burns in 2021.
The FireSmart program, which was been highlighted as a key framework to protect a rebuilt Lytton, includes managing vegetation, building less fire-prone structures and planning the re-introduction of wildland fire to the surrounding landscape.
The spokesperson said across the province, the FireSmart Plant Program has grown from two to over 30 nurseries last June. Over that period, 200 new local FireSmart representatives have been trained, raising the provincial total to more than 600.