‘Our story has to stay out there or we’ll be forgotten’ says Lytton resident

Members of the Royal Canadian Legion in Lytton have installed a new flag beside the site of the Legion building on Fraser Street. Work on clearing the property has yet to start. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Members of the Royal Canadian Legion in Lytton have installed a new flag beside the site of the Legion building on Fraser Street. Work on clearing the property has yet to start. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Lytton’s ‘Hot Spot’ plaque lies, undamaged, in O’Dwyer Park overlooking the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Lytton’s ‘Hot Spot’ plaque lies, undamaged, in O’Dwyer Park overlooking the Fraser and Thompson Rivers. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
The remains of Denise O’Connor’s home at 525 Fraser Street - formerly the O’Dwyer House - in Lytton. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)The remains of Denise O’Connor’s home at 525 Fraser Street - formerly the O’Dwyer House - in Lytton. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
The site of the Lytton Museum — at right beside the pool — has been cleared. The museum and almost all its contents were lost in the fire. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)The site of the Lytton Museum — at right beside the pool — has been cleared. The museum and almost all its contents were lost in the fire. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Looking north along Fraser Street from the pool. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Looking north along Fraser Street from the pool. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
The Lytton Visitor Centre was built on top of an old wading pool, which was revealed-complete with remaining flakes of blue paint on the side-after the fire. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)The Lytton Visitor Centre was built on top of an old wading pool, which was revealed-complete with remaining flakes of blue paint on the side-after the fire. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Roses blooming at the back of a property on Fraser Street in Lytton. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Roses blooming at the back of a property on Fraser Street in Lytton. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Properties on Fraser Street in Lytton. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Properties on Fraser Street in Lytton. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
A kettle sits on top of a foundation. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)A kettle sits on top of a foundation. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
A fireplace remains almost untouched. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)A fireplace remains almost untouched. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Looking towards Main Street, with Lytton Budget Foods in the background. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Looking towards Main Street, with Lytton Budget Foods in the background. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
A vehicle that was up on a hoist to be worked on remains frozen in time. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)A vehicle that was up on a hoist to be worked on remains frozen in time. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Looking south at the end of Fraser Street, with the CN rail bridge and foot bridge across the Fraser River visible. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Looking south at the end of Fraser Street, with the CN rail bridge and foot bridge across the Fraser River visible. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Fencing along River Road leading to Hobo Hollow. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Fencing along River Road leading to Hobo Hollow. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
Items that once adorned Lytton’s sidewalks now sit in Hobo Hollow below town, awaiting their fate. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)Items that once adorned Lytton’s sidewalks now sit in Hobo Hollow below town, awaiting their fate. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)
A garbage can at Hobo Hollow, the lid melted but the stonework unscathed. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)A garbage can at Hobo Hollow, the lid melted but the stonework unscathed. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)

There is a small measure of happiness in Lytton on June 24, when news comes down that visitors to the site no longer have to wear N95 masks.

“The site” is almost the entirety of downtown Lytton. Until June 30, 2021 it contained businesses, a health centre, an RCMP detachment, a post office, a bank, hotels, a library and municipal office, churches, two museums, a fire hall, a pool, dozens of houses, and more: all the things that make a town a community.

On June 29, 2021, Lytton — which bills itself as “Canada’s Hot Spot” — made news around the world as it registered the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada: 49.6° C. The next day, 90 per cent of it burned to the ground, destroyed in a fire, the cause of which is still undetermined.

Ever since then, anyone visiting the site on foot has to wear full protective gear: steel-toed boots, a helmet, a high-vis vest, and (until June 24) an N95 mask. The removal of the mask requirement — especially with the hot weather kicking into full gear — is a piece of good news in a place where good news is a rare commodity.

Denise O’Connor, a former school principal who has spent most of her life in Lytton, is happy: “It’s unbelievable to hear that!” She is at the site office, an Atco trailer just below Kumsheen ShchEma-Meet School, to meet with the Journal, and she stands patiently as Construction Safety Officer Marc Silverman goes through the three pages of information and a waiver that all visitors must understand and sign.

She can’t count the number of times she has listened to the talk, mostly escorting journalists to the site. Sometimes they ask for a visit, and sometimes she offers to take them; with the passage of time since the fire she can’t keep track.

“I’ve done it a lot,” she says. “I’m kind of numb to the current visuals in the village, and I forget about the impact on people who haven’t seen it before.”

From Highway 1 above town it is difficult to see the destruction: black fencing along the west side of the highway prevents it. The access road at the north end of town has been blocked off, but people travelling through Lytton to Highway 12 and points beyond can turn off by Kumsheen School and travel down Main Street, through the heart of the village, where bright blue fencing — a splash of colour against the brown and black and grey of most of the town — lines the street.

Lest anyone decide to indulge in a spot of disaster tourism, there are two security guards in white pick-up trucks, one at either end of Main Street, 24/7. They have a clear view of the entire route, so if anyone travelling through town stops their vehicle, or gets out, or even slows down, security is there immediately to get them on their way.

The Journal has not been to Lytton since a media tour was organized on July 9, 2021, and there are some marked differences between then and now. The dozens and dozens of burnt-out vehicles — cars, trucks, campers, RVs — are, for the most part, gone; most of the chimneys, which were all that was left standing on many properties, have been taken down. Apart from that and the fencing, however, the site looks much as it did almost a year ago, with one major exception: several sites have now been cleared of debris, rubble, and foundations.

These, explains O’Connor, are mostly the properties of those who had no insurance. The province stepped in several months ago and said it would cover the cost of debris removal for the uninsured and the under-insured, but O’Connor says that led to considerable confusion.

“The province told us they’d always said they’d pay for under-insured people, but the messages we got were mixed. At one press conference they’d say uninsured, and at the next they’d talk about under-insured.”

The truth, as O’Connor and others with insurance have found, is that almost everyone is under-insured, given that the cost for clean-up is higher than most policy limits. Archaeological work — which must be carried out at every property and overseen by trained workers, who watch as every load of dirt is removed — is not covered in insurance policies, and policyholders and their companies needed to get confirmation that the cost would be covered by the province.

O’Connor is frustrated that some people have blamed insured property owners for slowing down the pace of debris removal.

“We’ve been told it’s our fault for not signing, but we’ve been waiting for the insurance companies to get it in writing before signing the right of entry form. That signs everything over to the village to clean up the property, and means that if anything happens we won’t blame them. They won’t start the insured clean-up until they get all the right of entry forms.”

We stop at O’Dwyer Park on Fraser Street, which is where the plaque marking Lytton as Canada’s Hot Spot is located. The park was untouched by the fire, and still contains a stone memorial with a plaque reading “In memory of Jim O’Dwyer for outstanding and dedicated service to the community of Lytton and Lionism. Deceased Sept. 15, 1978.”

The O’Dwyer house was at 525 Fraser Street, and was the house O’Connor lived in until June 30 last year (“I don’t know if he built it, but he lived there a long time”). The site is now like so many others in town, reduced to a foundation surrounded by the charred remnants of everyday life. O’Connor is currently living in the family home she grew up in in Lytton, which is above town and didn’t burn, and says she is planning on rebuilding what was the O’Dwyer house on Fraser.

Only it won’t be the O’Dwyer house any more, she acknowledges. As in many small towns, where homes in particular are still referred to by the name of someone who built it, or lived there long ago, the O’Dwyer house, and so many others, have gone. People can rebuild on the sites, but it will never be quite the same. Much of the history is gone and cannot be rebuilt.

This is painfully made manifest a few lots down on Fraser, at the site of what was the Lytton Museum. It is now an empty lot, eerily smooth amidst the rubble. Several sites owned by the Village of Lytton, such as the museum and nearby fire hall, have been among the first lots from which debris has been removed, although the municipal building on 4th Street is untouched, burnt-out chair frames still piled where a wall once stood.

Beside the museum site is the Lytton pool. The infrastructure around it was destroyed, including the visitor centre on Fraser, built on top of what had been a wading pool that is now uncovered for the first time in years, a bit of blue paint still clinging to one wall. The pool itself, also painted blue, has stood out in aerial photographs taken of Lytton post-fire, but on June 24 it is being jack-hammered out of existence.

It caused a furore on social media when the demolition equipment moved in, with dozens of people decrying the removal of the pool, which to the naked eye looked undamaged. An engineer’s report apparently noted that the pool was fatally damaged and could not be repaired, but this information seems not to have been communicated to residents who are hungry for communication. The sense is that, as in so many other instances over the last year, people just want to know what is going on, and why, before another piece of Lytton vanishes.

Further down Fraser is the site of the Totem Motel. The lodge was the oldest building in Lytton, and as an uninsured building the lot has been cleared, but O’Connor says the owners have no plans to rebuild. Across Fraser Street is the site of the Lytton Legion, painstakingly refurbished by volunteers over the last few years. That building was insured, and debris removal has not yet started, but the Legion has boxed up the cenotaph beside it and put a new flag up, which flutters brightly, bravely in the stiff breeze.

The properties at the south end of Fraser Street have all been cleared, including the site of the house belonging to former Lytton public works employee Owen Collings. He is now a site manager on the recovery team, and it was he who recommended that those sites be cleared before freshet so that people travelling past them on River Drive would not see the debris.

River Drive leads past the sewage treatment plant to a place called Hobo Hollow: a large parking lot at the east side of the CN rail bridge and the pedestrian bridge beside it leading from the west side of the Fraser River. Westside is not part of the Village of Lytton, but many people live there, and they will park their cars on the west side, walk across the bridge, and use another car they keep parked on the east side to go into town and beyond.

Hobo Hollow is full of cars, as well as village-owned items — benches, stone planters, garbage cans with plastic inserts — recovered from the town above. Some are damaged beyond repair, while others look fresh and clean, ready to go back on the sidewalks, whenever they are rebuilt.

Hobo Hollow is a key travel link, especially in spring, when freshet means the Lytton reaction ferry cannot operate, leaving the pedestrian bridge as the only immediate way to get from Westside to Lytton itself. Youth employed by Lytton First Nation wait in the parking lot, and when people laden-down with shopping return to Hobo Hollow their goods can be loaded into wagons and pulled by the youth across the bridge. Collings knew that there would be far more vehicles travelling along River Drive when the ferry went out, hence his advice to get that area cleared quickly.

“The ferry can be out for weeks, depending on the run-off,” says O’Connor. “It’s a real positive to have Owen, because he knows a lot about the village.”

Collings is at the Two Rivers Market later that afternoon, when he and his wife Patsy Gessey are the only vendors left late in the day. The Lytton farmers’ market won the award for best small market in B.C. in 2016, and was held downtown every Friday. It has now reopened at Gwsep Gas on Highway 12 just outside town, and O’Connor picks up garlic scapes, beets, and kale from Collings and Gessey.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to come by in Lytton now. So is everything else, but O’Connor misses fresh vegetables. Sometimes lost in the conversation about the fire is the fact that while the Village of Lytton only had a population of around 260 people, more than 2,000 people live in the surrounding area, in Thompson-Nicola Regional District Area “I”, on First Nations reserves, and in small unincorporated communities.

“The Village of Lytton was a service community for so many people: not just from the village and from Lytton First Nation but from Skuppah, Siska, Kanaka Bar,” explains O’Connor. “At Christmas we put together nearly 500 food hampers for area residents. We had all the services in Lytton, and people came here from Spences Bridge and Boston Bar for banking and groceries and health care.”

Banking is now in a Scotiabank trailer at Kumsheen Rafting Resort just north of town (no cash deposits allowed). A tiny Canada Post trailer at Gwsep Gas allows people to mail items (only if you already have correct postage; you can’t buy stamps) and receive packages. Amazon, it is noted, does not currently allow deliveries to Lytton, but plans are apparently in the works to change this so residents can order much-needed items they can no longer easily get.

Lytton and area residents have been hearing for a year about plans that are “in the works”. The RCMP were going to set up a mobile detachment late in 2021; now it might be there by late fall 2022. A bigger post office facility has been promised, but there is nothing yet. Temporary housing was going to be constructed for village residents: nothing has been built, and residents remain scattered wherever they can find accommodation. People in the village had been told that rebuilding might start as soon as fall 2022; now most people have quietly moved that date back to at least spring 2023.

Don’t tell that to Lytton First Nation, however. O’Connor drives us past IR 17 and IR 18, LFN land where the clearing work has been completed. Further out of town, along Highway 12, we turn down Two Mile Road and then St. George’s Road, where various sites that were previously grassland have been cleared and dozens of new modular homes erected for LFN members. At the west end of the site a new road is being carved up a hillside to join Highway 12, to provide easier access.

First Nations have their own autonomy and operate outside municipal and provincial legislation, so LFN has been able to move forward quickly, assisted by funding from the federal government. In Lytton, by contrast, funding has trickled in: $1 million in 2021 to help the village keep operating; $8.3 million in February for debris removal, environmental and archaeological remediation, and to support the local government; another $18.4 million in March for yet more debris removal and remediation; $77 million in June to fund fire-resilient building costs and a Lytton Business Restart program.

It’s a lot of money from the provincial and federal governments, but no one knows how much will be needed. What happens when insurance policy coverage periods start to run out? What happens when insured people run up against supply chain and contractor issues, to say nothing of inflation, that means rebuilding costs will quickly outstrip the replacement value a building was insured for? How will uninsured people be able to return and rebuild, or will they — like the owners of the Totem Motel — decide not to come back? What businesses will decide to return, and which ones won’t, forcing residents to travel to Lillooet and Ashcroft to pick up necessities?

Impossible to say. In the meantime, there is the knowledge that the one-year anniversary of the fire is coming up on June 30. Media interest will be high, which is why residents have planned a day full of private gathering and reflection, away from journalists. O’Connor is pragmatic about the fact that the one-year mark will attract an unusually high amount of attention.

“It keeps it in the public eye. If I don’t see Lytton in the news for a month or so, or see something about how ‘Lytton is rebuilding’, I’ll get some kind of story out, because otherwise people will think Lytton is moving ahead great guns.

”Our story has to stay out there, or we’ll be forgotten.”

B.C. Wildfires 2021Lytton