The B.C. government has approved a $1-million grant to the village of Lytton, in part to meet the municipal payroll. The unusual bailout was needed because there is almost no tax base left following the June 30 wildfire that destroyed most of the town.
As British Columbia now faces the mammoth task of repairing the damage from November’s flooding and mudslides that have devastated dozens of communities and destroyed key transportation corridors, the emergency response in Lytton offers an example of the slow pace of recovery that can be expected.
The day after the deadly fire ripped through the village, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier John Horgan spoke. There were assurances that Canada would be at B.C.’s side in helping Lytton’s 250 residents and its local businesses recover.
Almost five months later, the wreckage remains in place and residents are scattered in temporary accommodations across the province, with no idea when they might begin to have a chance to rebuild.
“Basically everything looks the same as July 1,” said Jessoa Lightfoot, a former mayor of Lytton who has lived in the community for 50 years.
In the heart of the village, the burned-out shops sit behind security fencing, with black fabric screening the worst of the view. The debris has yet to be cleared, and now with mudslides cutting off most of the highways in and out of town, the prospects of reconstruction are even more remote.
The Bank of Nova Scotia has opened a temporary branch in a trailer, but most of the services that hold a town together – the post office, the grocery store, the cafe – are gone. “Our postal code doesn’t exist right now. I have to drive a 130-kilometre round trip to get my mail,” Ms. Lightfoot said.
She watched the town burn from across the Fraser River, and her home was not touched by the fire. But Ms. Lightfoot, whose 10-year stint as mayor ended in 2018, remains in touch with evacuees who don’t know where they will spend the Christmas holiday season, or if their emergency funds will evaporate before then.
NDP MLA Jennifer Rice was tasked by cabinet in October to help steer Lytton’s recovery.
She said the $1-million grant will help restart the local economy, and allow the municipality to pay its staff in the meantime, but she can’t say when Lytton’s residents can expect to come home. “I wish I could answer that,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Rice said there is work going on behind the scenes and she believes debris removal will start soon, as the first step before any construction can begin. “I think things are finally moving even though, if you’re a Lyttonite, it doesn’t feel fast enough. I completely understand that.”
She said the province won’t cut off emergency supports to residents in temporary housing any time soon. “We’re making sure that people are supported well through the winter, into the spring and beyond, if necessary.”
Additional assistance may come in the future, she said, once the local government decides just how Lytton will be rebuilt, with new requirements for fireproofing and other climate change adaptations. “I think that’s a reasonable expectation. I don’t know exactly what that would look like at this stage.”
Jackie Tegart, the Liberal MLA for Fraser-Nicola, flew over the town a week after the fire in the company of the Premier and key cabinet ministers.
“I said to all of them, ‘We need to recognize we’re a small, small community. People in leadership roles have lost their homes, have experienced the trauma of running for their lives, and will need a lot of support and a lot of expertise to help them put together a plan of how we’re going to move through this.’”
But the response has been so slow, Ms. Tegart worries for the communities across her riding that are now dealing with the devastation from November’s extreme weather. Highway 8 between Merritt and Spences Bridge has been washed away. Merritt’s 7,000 residents were evacuated due to flooding, the town remains without a hospital and the tap water isn’t safe to drink.
“Our emergency services volunteers are exhausted. We’ve had fires all summer. We’ve had floods. We’ve had evacuees, people from Lytton, that were in Merritt who are now evacuated again,” Ms. Tegart said. “I know that people on the ground are working their hardest. They are putting everything they have into it. But I would suggest that there are gaps that needs to be filled before the next flood season at spring freshet, and before the wildfire season next year.”
But it is not clear those gaps will be filled before then. The provincial government is working on an update to the Emergency Program Act, to focus on disaster risk reduction, and it is working on a new B.C. Flood Strategy, but those changes are not slated to be introduced until next year.
Highway crews are working to repair an estimated 200 highway sites that were damaged or destroyed by washouts in the province’s Interior and south coast, and the cities of Abbotsford, Princeton and Merritt – along with smaller communities – experienced significant flooding.
Amid all that destruction, and fears of additional damage, Ms. Lightfoot is worried Lytton will drop even further down the province’s list of priorities. “At the beginning of July, everyone was, ‘We are going to come back,’ and there was optimism about rebuilding,” she said. “Then when we were just starting to get things moving, then we had the washouts everywhere. The fear is now that we will be forgotten.”
Last Friday, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Horgan met again, this time to discuss flood response. Asked about Lytton, both leaders said they haven’t forgotten their commitments. “It’s an extraordinary, challenging situation because of the toxicity of the lands,” Mr. Horgan said.
The flood response is a huge undertaking, he said. But he added: “I want to assure the people of Lytton that this does not push anyone to the back of the line … It was a storied community in our history. It can be, in my opinion, the symbol of our future by being an adapted, climate-friendly community.”
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