The words have all been said.
Every synonym for “devastating” has been used. Fire has been described in all ways possible. If there is a word to describe those who fled the fire in Lytton last Wednesday that has not been invoked, it is in a language other than English, because all the words we have are as exhausted as those residents.
This is not the first time that a town in the B.C. Interior has burned. Not long after it was built, Barkerville burned to the ground. On July 5, 1916 most of the business district of Ashcroft was reduced to ashes. Lytton itself has had major fires, in 1931 and 1948.
But what happened on June 30 is of a scale that is almost incomprehensible. Dozens of homes lost. The hospital, ambulance station, library, RCMP detachment, former elementary school, village office, shops and stores all gone. The museum — repository of much of the proud history of Lytton, one of the oldest communities in the province — lost. The Chinese Museum, a labour of love for Lorna Fandrich and her husband Bernie, gone. It is almost impossible to take in.
Yet there were tiny glimmers of hope. Word came that the newly-renovated Kumsheen ShchEma-meet School survived, prompting an outpouring of relief, as well as the observation that this is probably the first time students have been glad that their school did not burn. An aerial view of the town shows that somehow the little church of St. Barnabas, its parish hall, and the community hall at the north end of town survived, as did the nearby memorial to Chief Cexpe’nthlEm. Doubtless there will be other tales of survival in the days to come.
It seems fitting, somehow, that Kumsheen School survived. ShchEma-meet is the Nlaka’pamux word for “children”, and while it is a cliché to say that children are our future, that does not make those words any less true. Schools are places that prepare our children for the future, and they are far more than just places of learning, especially in small communities like Lytton, where they are meeting spaces, the site of events that bring the community together.
The outpouring of support for the residents of Lytton has been immediate and overwhelming, from near and far. On Wednesday night there were already people asking “What can I do, what is needed”, and that desire to help has only grown stronger. We truly are, or can be, at our best when times are worst.
Lytton has rebuilt itself in the past, and will do so again. It has been the beating heart of the Nlaka’paxum nation for centuries, and like the phoenix, the place where the rivers meet will rise from the ashes and start again.