Peter Brown believes his gun safe may have protected his hunting firearms, important documents and a cedar basket from his late mother’s collection of heirlooms she expertly wove.
Mr. Brown, a member of the Lytton First Nation, has a shred of hope that these items were saved from the wildfire that destroyed the village of Lytton, B.C., last week because a recent photo – sent by a family friend – appears to show the large metal box tilting out of the rubble of the home he long shared with his wife, Matilda Brown, who is from the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation near Lillooet.
Zooming into the same picture, Ms. Brown points out that the couple’s frantic soaking of their property before they fled last Wednesday seems to have saved their traditional st`wan hut for air drying salmon in the backyard. However, their home with dozens of family baskets, drums, masks and paddles she wanted to one day gift to their children has been obliterated. As have Mr. Brown’s top-of-the-line tools that the 71-year-old handyman used to fix and build things, such as a years-long project to fashion a thick table out of a cedar burl he found in the wild.
The Browns, who have been living out of a hotel room just outside Kamloops for the past week, are now some of the hundreds of evacuees hoping to join a bus tour planned by the regional district on Friday for residents to see what’s left of their community.
“It would help us with our healing because this has been such a shock, a trauma, and we’re going through those different stages of feelings,” Ms. Brown said of the opportunity to see the result of the catastrophic wildfire. “Even for myself, there’s been anger, shock, depression – there’s not a day that has gone by that I haven’t cried.”
The fire last Wednesday destroyed most of Lytton, located in the B.C. Interior about a three-hour drive northeast of Vancouver, and also damaged properties and forced evacuations on nearby Lytton First Nation territory. Two people died in Lytton and several others remain unaccounted for.
Officials are still investigating the cause of the fire, which they say appears to be caused by human activity, as opposed to lightning. The wildfire followed an intense heat wave that led to temperatures in Lytton of nearly 50 C, the hottest weather recorded in the country’s history, shattered records across Western Canada and contributed to hundreds of deaths in B.C.
Debbie Sell, an information officer with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, which is organizing the tour, said disaster response agencies learned how important it can be for evacuees to return to the ruins after a wildfire in 2017 that ravaged Williams Lake, a three-hour drive north of Lytton.
In Lytton, 217 properties are still under evacuation order, but Ms. Sell couldn’t provide a breakdown of how many other homes on Lytton First Nation territory were also evacuated. Residents who fled the area have ended up in Chilliwack, Merritt, Kelowna, Kamloops or other communities, and any of them will be able to sign up and get on a bus this Friday. They will only be able to drive down the village’s main thoroughfare and turn around without leaving the vehicle because the other streets are still piled with debris and the air is still too polluted.
Joe Munroe is almost certain his home just north of Lytton is relatively intact, but he has no clue when he may return to it.
Mr. Munroe, a Lytton First Nation member who has relocated to Merritt, shared a worry common among evacuees now living across the Interior of British Columbia as they await further word from the authorities: It might be months before they can go back to their homes.
Mr. Munroe and several others resting Tuesday at the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s powwow grounds pointed to a July 3 provincial order stopping anyone from entering the evacuated area in and around Lytton until Oct. 15 – or earlier if it is rescinded.
The Village of Lytton issued a news release Tuesday night warning residents not to expect to salvage anything. Whatever has not been melted, incinerated or damaged beyond repair is still too compromised to be safe, the release said. Village officials said there is no longer any electricity, water or sewage infrastructure working, but said the sewage treatment plant did not burn. In-depth testing is also needed to determine whether the flame retardant used to fight the wildfire might have contaminated the local watershed.
“For those looking at heartbreaking pictures of our village, please understand that if a wall is standing, it does not mean there is anything on the other side of it,” the statement read.
For now, the Browns are waiting for their home insurance broker to get access to their property and assess the damage and determine if, and what, they may be paid out under their plan. Mr. Brown, a residential school survivor who retired from a three-decade-long career fixing railway structures and now works for a nearby gold mine, said he wants to eventually settle in a rural family property just outside Lytton, but must run sewer and water lines to the site.
“I don’t think we want to live in town any more,” Mr. Brown said. “I’m not even sure if I’ll have enough to rebuild … and at my age, if you borrow money, how [are] you going to pay it back if you’ve only got a few more years left?”
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