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‘I want a home back again’: One year after fire, Lytton, B.C., residents mourn slow recovery

It’s been a year since the residents of Lytton, B.C., and those in neighbouring communities lost everything when a wildfire spread through the village, burning down homes and businesses, and killing two people. 

In the days leading up to the fire, the community — home to about 250 people — had set heat records for the entire country, reaching as high as 49.6 C. The grass was dry, and the air was torrid.

In a matter of hours, the town burned to the ground, leaving behind a few structures, mostly charred metal and bricks. 

A year later, not much has changed. 

A burnt out car and pile of charred rubble.
Environmental assessments, archaeological work, debris removal and demolition have to take place before residents of Lytton can start rebuilding their community. (Shelley Joyce/CBC)

Fabian Duncan bounced around from place to place in different communities over the past year, he says. Now he’s back on Lytton First Nation land. The Nation has 56 reserves along the Fraser River, located in and around the Village of Lytton. 

Duncan, who saw the fire ignite, says he still struggles with the emotional impact the fire had on him and his loved ones.

“There was smoke everywhere and the flames were knee-high,” he said. 

“It was not normal. I just told my buddy that we gotta get out of here.”

A man wearing sunglasses stands in front of railway tracks.
Fabian Duncan says it’s difficult to convey the struggles the people of Lytton and the Lytton First Nation are dealing with in the aftermath of the devastating wildfire. (Tom Popyk/CBC)

He says he hopes everyone who lost their homes will be able to rebuild and return to the area.

“A lot of my peoples lost everything they worked hard for.”

‘I want a home back again’

The cleanup and rebuilding of Lytton has been a slow, arduous process that’s left some residents wondering if they’ll ever be able to return home. 

“Why is this not cleaned up yet? Why is this taking so long?” Denise O’Connor asked when she took CBC on a tour last week of what used to be her home.

“I want a home back again.”

A woman in a high visibility vest looks to the left as the wind blows through her short greying hair.
Denise O’Connor says she is eager to rebuild her home, but first needs approval from Lytton officials. (Tom Popyk/CBC)

After staying in hotels and motels in Kamloops and Merritt, and moving in with her daughter in Quesnel over the last year, O’Connor now lives in her childhood home on the south side of Highway 1, where structures were untouched by the blaze.

But for 30 years before the fire, O’Connor lived in a house in the heart of Lytton.

She says she’s become more involved in municipal council meetings and feels like the community has become a political pawn.

She worries the delayed rebuild is purely bureaucratic. 

A charred oven sits among a pile of rubble a year after a wildfire destroyed Lytton, B.C.
Rusted out metal and charred brick are all that remain in village — a year after a wildfire destroyed the village. (Shelley Joyce/CBC)

Rebuild has been ‘frustratingly slow’

The village has said it hopes residents will have access to their properties, or what’s left of them, to start rebuilding by the end of September — about 15 months after the fire.

But Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman expects it could be up to eight years before the community is fully rebuilt. 

“I’m concerned people will establish lives elsewhere,” he said.

A woman with short hair and wearing glasses smiles at the camera.
Lorna Fandrich, owner and curator of the Lytton Chinese History Museum — which also burned down in the fire — says she hopes people can start planning to rebuild their homes by fall. (Tom Popyk/CBC)

Lorna Fandrich and her husband, Bernie, plan to rebuild Lytton’s Chinese History Museum, which they opened in 2017.

The couple lost hundreds of artifacts in the fire but say they intend to rebuild as soon as possible. 

“One year after the fire, our life in Lytton is quite [different],” Fandrich said. 

“For many people, life isn’t that easy. They’re unsure what their future will be.”

Clay pots that have been weathered.
Some of the artifacts recovered from Lytton’s Chinese History Museum after a fire destroyed most of the village. (Tom Popyk/CBC)

Ideally, she says, assessments and demolition in the village will be complete by fall — otherwise the rebuild will have to wait until spring. 

“The more time passes between reconstruction and the fire, the more difficult it will be for [residents] to come and resettle in Lytton,” Bernie told Radio-Canada.

A chimney and foundation from what was once a home are all that is left after a wildfire tore through the town of Lytton, B.C.
The remains of homes and businesses still line the streets of Lytton, as the community continues to wait to return and rebuild. (Simon Gohier/Radio-Canada)

He said he’s disappointed with the pace of recovery. 

“It has been frustratingly slow.”

Earlier this month, the federal government announced $77 million to go toward rebuilding the village, including more fire-resistant buildings.

The provincial government has committed more than $49 million to the rebuild. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth expects rebuilding to commence in September this year.

Polderman has said that without that public funding for infrastructure, a rebuild would be “impossible.”

Two gnomes that have been burnt remain standing on a ledge outside a former home.
While some residents remain hopeful about the future of Lytton, others may be considering starting a life elsewhere, says Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman. (Simon Gohier/Radio-Canada)

“The last year hasn’t been a pleasant experience,” Polderman said.

“I don’t think anyone has the experience or expertise to deal with a situation like ours.”

A sign that reads 'Lytton East' near train tracks is weathered, and trees and shrubs near by have been burnt by a wildfire.
The federal government has announced $77 million to go toward rebuilding the village, while the provincial government has committed more than $49 million. (Simon Gohier/Radio-Canada)

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