Almost every day, Erin Aleck drives through the village of Lytton, B.C., where she lived before it burned to the ground in a wildfire during a record-setting heat wave last year. Every time, she sees the metal futon she was sitting on when she first realized she had to evacuate, lying in a pile of rubble where her home used to be.
It’s in view because the town still looks like a disaster zone. Crumbled buildings lie all over the community. Explosion marks and debris from cars and propane tanks are still scattered on the streets. Pieces of metal are littered around the sidewalks.
And one year later, the home Ms. Aleck used to rent is still gutted.
“The rebuilding aspect of this has almost been more damaging than the fire itself,” Ms. Aleck said, adding that the slow pace of Lytton’s recovery and the lack of support is causing her continuing grief.
“We’re almost a year into this, and I’ve only just heard from the village for the first time a couple weeks ago about temporary housing, after camping for months and finding myself an apartment.”
Towns typically finish cleaning debris and start to rebuild just a few months after a major disaster like a fire. When Slave Lake, Alta., was largely destroyed by fire in 2011, foundations for new homes were already being poured just five months later. It took 10 months for debris removal to begin in Lytton.
The difference in Lytton is the archeological significance of the land below the town.
The entire village is considered a heritage site. Experts estimate that Indigenous people first settled there as many as 10,000 years ago and used the area as an important meeting place between coastal and interior bands. The chances of finding artifacts or human remains there are considered to be very high.
Governments, insurance companies and residents all see the rebuild as an opportunity to honour Indigenous history by conducting archeological work.
“We’ve been there for time immemorial,” said Ms. Aleck, who is a member of the Lytton First Nation. As frustrated as she is with the pace of the rebuild, it’s important to her that human remains and historical objects are treated with respect.
Rebuilding a town that has been as thoroughly destroyed as Lytton is difficult enough. The addition of an unprecedented amount of archeological work on every property in town has slowed work to a crawl, as governments and insurance companies figure out logistics and funding. Insurers have no obligation to fund the archeological work, and deciphering the costs and responsibilities has been challenging.
As a result, the village looks largely frozen in time one year after the fire, and residents’ lives are on pause as they live in motels and temporary housing around the province. People like Ms. Aleck have to drive an hour or more on windy mountain roads just to see doctors or buy groceries.
Debris removal – the first step in rebuilding the town – only began about two months ago, because it, too, involves archeological work. Traffic still isn’t allowed to stop in the area, because toxic contaminants have yet to be properly cleaned up. And the lucky few whose homes didn’t burn down in the centre of the community are only allowed short visits, escorted by security.
“When you think of typical archeological sites, you think of undeveloped areas where it’s essentially just bare land. You’re not digging around existing established communities,” said Rob de Pruis, national director of consumer and industry relations with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, which represents the country’s insurers. “This is one of the biggest things that makes the place unique.”
The archeological work has been methodical, and it covers the entirety of the town. Monitors – many from Lytton First Nation – watch as excavators remove debris. If something of significance is uncovered, workers begin to sift through the soil for further findings.
The early stages of debris clearing have uncovered small items such as arrowheads. Those haven’t caused much delay. But authorities say there’s a likelihood of more significant finds, such as burial sites, which could cause much longer delays as experts are brought in to decide what happens next.
Residents of Lytton complain that the local government has been slow-pedalling the work, leaving their lives in limbo. Governments, for their part, have said co-ordinating with all the different insurers involved has been frustrating.
All the while, the total cost of the disaster to individuals, governments and insurance companies has kept climbing.
Earlier this year, the IBC said estimated insured losses had climbed to $102-million, from an original estimate of $78-million, because of the delays. There are limits to how much insurance companies will pay, and Mr. de Pruis said homeowners may have to make decisions about reducing the monthly payments they receive, to make their coverage last longer.
The B.C. government has committed more than $48-million to support village staff, fund the initial debris clearing and archeological work, and restore infrastructure.
Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman said recently that he won’t run for office again when local elections take place in October. He added that the village’s council has worked tirelessly despite staffing challenges and paltry four-figure salaries. One councillor quit after the fire because of negativity from the community. Mr. Polderman said he has been affected, too.
“I eat, sleep and drink disaster seven days a week,” he said.
Expedition journals from 1808 describe Lytton as an established community, where explorers were greeted by as many as 1,200 Indigenous people. Located at the meeting point of the Thompson and Fraser rivers, the area, then known as Camchin or Kumsheen (depending on how the Indigenous name is anglicized), had a bountiful supply of food. The journals note people there “ate well and seemed long-lived.”
Michael Klassen, an archeologist with Klahanee Heritage Research who is working in Lytton, said the area is central to the history of the Nlaka’pamux people. ”The archeological significance of this site rivals that of any other ancient settlement in Canada,” he said.
Immediately after the fire, Matt Pasco, chair of the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, started working on ways of streamlining the archeological aspect of the rebuild. The NNTC, while not a legal Indigenous band under the Indian Act, represents several First Nation bands in the Lytton area. Ensuring the archeological work would be done properly was paramount for Mr. Pasco.
“It was a vibrant community at one time, and it’s very important for us to understand that, and to protect it, as much as Western society wants to protect a place like Rome,” said Mr. Pasco, who lives north of Lytton near Ashcroft, B.C. “It’s vital. So much of this province was built without the consent and respect of our people.”
Just days after the fire, the NNTC struck an agreement with the federal government to secure $2-million in funding for its initial work. Mr. Pasco said the deal was in part intended to ensure that Lytton residents weren’t sitting around for months waiting for the federal and B.C. governments to hash out which would provide the money.
The NNTC also worked with the B.C. government to overhaul a lengthy and expensive process under which each property owner would have had to pay $10,000 for an archeological permit before work could begin. Instead, the government agreed to create one permit for the entire town, ensuring that the cost of the dig wouldn’t burden homeowners.
“This is groundbreaking … we’ve never seen anywhere a process where the federal government, the provincial government and tribal council are all coming together to address this in an expedited way,” Mr. Pasco said. “The predominant reason the rebuild is going as smoothly and on track as it is, is through the commitment letters the NNTC negotiated with the province and feds.”
Experts on the subject say the archeological work is moving at a relatively fast pace compared to other examples around the world.
Sara Shneiderman, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia, studied recovery efforts in Nepal after a deadly earthquake there left thousands dead in 2015. The rebuild had a significant archeological component. Seven years after the disaster, she said, only 75 per cent of housing stock that was lost has been replenished.
“The sense that this could be done quickly is often misguided,” she added.
Ms. Shneiderman said B.C. has an opportunity to set a precedent for respecting Indigenous ancestral grounds after a disaster, which she said is important since natural disasters will undoubtedly strike the province again. The key, she argued, is to provide ample support for communities as they spend time displaced.
“What we really want to avoid is pitting the homeowners against heritage values,” Ms. Shneiderman said. “This work should be seen as a large-scale collective value that the government should place priority on.”
It’s not easy for Lytton residents to hear that the current pace of work in their village is relatively speedy. Every day, they see reminders of their trauma and deal with the effect Lytton’s closing has had on their lives.
Tricia Thorpe lives just outside Lytton and was allowed to return shortly after the fire. With help from other residents, she was able to clear debris and begin building a new home.
In April, Ms. Thorpe’s husband suffered a heart attack, and it could have taken two hours to get to hospital if they waited for an ambulance. Instead, Ms. Thorpe rushed her husband to the health centre in Lillooet and planned to meet an ambulance halfway. But they beat emergency responders and arrived less than an hour after the heart attack started.
“It was harrowing,” she said of the experience.
Ms. Thorpe, like many others in the community, considers the archeological dig an important part of Lytton’s rebuild.
But she finds it hard to understand why that process would prevent debris from being cleared away quickly.
The IBC’s explanation is that the delay is related to the way the cleanup is being funded and organized.
Mr. de Pruis said there are two kinds of debris to consider: debris on top of the soil and debris within the soil, such as a home’s foundation.
The former could be cleared without any archeological monitoring, but removing the latter would disturb the soil and require delicate work.
The quickest method would be to do the cleanup in multiple stages for each property. The debris on top would be removed by crews, who would then be moved out as archeological workers came in to plan the more complicated removal of buried debris. But this method would also be the most expensive, because of the need to vacate workers and equipment.
In order to keep costs low so that residents didn’t exceed their insurance limits, the parties involved opted to do the vast majority of the debris removal in one step, according to Mr. de Pruis.
“Co-ordinating all of that takes time,” he said.
It has taken so much time, according to Mr. Polderman, the mayor, that debris removal has yet to begin on insured homes.
For uninsured homes, meanwhile, the B.C. government stepped in with $18.4-million in funding to ensure debris clearing and archeological work could go ahead. Debris clearing is well under way at those properties, Mr. Polderman said.
Indigenous bands in the area have also been able to move more quickly than the insurance companies. Lytton First Nation suffered heavy damage from the fire, but debris clearing is effectively finished there, since the community had autonomy, and direct funding from the federal government.
John Sam, economic development manager for the First Nation, said every day Lytton remains closed is a challenge for his community.
“We’re stuck,” he said, adding that residents will end up having to decide whether it’s worth staying in the area and waiting years for a full rebuild.
“We don’t have any place to buy groceries, our library’s gone, our swimming pool is gone, the bank is gone, the hospital is gone and the people are gone.”
He said members of the area’s bands are getting fed up with the pace of the work in Lytton, and are questioning how the $2-million that governments awarded to the NNTC for archeological work is being spent. Mr. Sam said the NNTC has yet to publicly report on what it has done with the funding.
Lytton-area residents complain that the village hasn’t been moving fast enough to plan out and approve work that needs to be done on its sewer and water systems, which were also destroyed in the fire.
The delay has been exacerbated by the fact that the local government lost its bylaw records in the fire, meaning it has had to draft laws and building codes effectively from scratch.
The village had a full-time staff of just three people when the fire struck, and little reserve funding. As a result, it was unable to start on rebuilding efforts until government assistance started flowing in the months after the blaze.
The B.C. government has funded about 18 new workers to help the local government with the immense task of directing several different construction and archeology teams while dealing with mountains of administrative details.
“If you hire a contractor to do work for you, and that contractor is delayed, the local government then has to deal with the incredibly complex project management of setting one thing aside, and putting everything depending on that piece on pause,” said Roly Russell, a B.C. MLA who is working as one of the provincial government’s liaisons with Lytton.
Earlier this month, the provincial government set a September target for finishing the cleaning phase and beginning rebuilding. But Mr. Polderman and IBC have said any timeline is guesswork because of the variables involved.
In the meantime, the former residents of Lytton continue to wait, many of them in inadequate housing situations.
Among them is Ms. Aleck, who is living in a temporary apartment with her wife in Kanaka Bar, south of Lytton. She considers herself fortunate. She at least has a stable roof over her head and is working full-time again.
She isn’t happy with the pace of the work in the village, but accepts that it may be years before she resettles in Lytton.
The wait, for her, is worth it. Lytton is her home, and it was her ancestors’ home. That’s why she is emotionally invested in the archeological work.
“We’ve been here forever. We know there are going to be things,” she said.
“It’s just about dealing with everything in a respectful manner. If we can put those ancestors back to bed, then I don’t see any reason why we can’t keep moving forward.”
A fiery future: More from The Globe and Mail
On the ground
Video: A tour of Lytton
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