How Lytton, a Canadian village razed by wildfire, is wrestling with climate-proofing its future – Michmutters

How Lytton, a Canadian village razed by wildfire, is wrestling with climate-proofing its future

A year after a wildfire destroyed the western Canadian village of Lytton, residents, municipal leaders and the provincial government are grappling with the slow and costly reality of future-proofing a community against climate change.

The remote village sits at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers in the high, dry mountains of interior British Columbia, making it a bullseye for fires and landslides. In June 2021, 90 per cent of Lytton’s structures burned down, a day after the village recorded Canada’s hottest-ever temperature.

Now officials have a unique opportunity to rebuild an entire community from scratch using fire-safe materials and energy-efficient building standards.

However, long-term disaster mitigation plans and net-zero ambitions are running up against the realities of human impatience and reimbursement limits from insurers. Burnt-out residents — many still living in temporary accommodation — want to rebuild their homes and get on with their lives.

“There’s a distinct difference between what would be ideal and what’s realistic,” said Tricia Thorpe, 61, who lost her home in the fire.

A middle-aged couple stand in a patchy front yard in front of a basic white brick building with a blue roof.
Tricia Thorpe and her husband, Don Glasgow, stand outside their new home.(Reuters: Jennifer Gauthier)

“I don’t think anybody has a problem with building fire-smart, but they’re trying to build a model village. They’re talking about solar [panel] sidewalks.”

The risk of destructive weather is rising as climate change intensifies, sharpening the focus on how communities build.

Insured damage for severe weather events across Canada hit $C2.1 billion ($2.34 billion) last year, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, including $C102 million for the Lytton fire.

Since 1983, Canadian insurers have averaged about $C934 million a year in severe weather-related losses.

Catastrophic losses from severe weather in Canada

The wrangling over how to restore Lytton highlights the messy reality of climate adaptation, and what costs and delays people are willing to endure to cut carbon emissions and mitigate their fire risk.

In the 300-person village, some lofty ambitions have already been shelved in favor of a faster rebuild.

Lytton’s council wanted to adopt building by-laws that require net-zero-emissions homes, but scaled that back to lower energy-efficiency standards after residents pushed back.

The village also considered burying all its power lines to reduce fire risk, a three-year process, but is now installing temporary overhead lines to get the job done in nine months.

A small white brick building with a blue roof sits on the edge of a mountainside surrounded by charred black trees.
Tricia Thorpe’s home, north of Lytton. The village sits in the high, dry mountains of interior British Columbia, making it a bullseye for fires and landslides.(Reuters: Jennifer Gauthier)

“At times, I get frustrated with the lack of knowledge and the fact that residents think we’re trying to make it impossible for them to rebuild,” Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman said.

“We could become a first-generation model for net-zero.”

Mr Polderman said the solar panel sidewalks — reinforced solar panels in place of pavements on the town’s sidewalks — and wind energy could power street lights and municipal buildings.

breaking new ground

In the 13 months since the fire, little progress has been made on restoration, with only a quarter of properties cleared of ash and debris.

The local council is still finalizing fire-safety building by-laws it says will be the most comprehensive ever developed in Canada and make Lytton the best-protected community in the country.

Those new by-laws — based on expertise from Canada’s National Research Council on developing communities in wildfire-prone regions — cover everything from building materials to landscaping and maintenance to what can be stored on properties.

Small piles of construction material sits among burned patches of ground on concrete housing blocks.
The remains of homes and businesses a year after a wildfire destroyed 90 per cent of the buildings in Lytton.(Reuters: Jennifer Gauthier)

Finalizing the by-laws and community consultation has taken months.

“I’m sure if we’d just said, ‘Let’s get people back in their homes ASAP’ it would have been faster, but then we might be in the same situation in a few years’ time,” said Kelsey Winter, the chair of the BC FireSmart Committee, a provincial organization leading community engagement in Lytton.

“It’s taking longer than many people wanted, but Lytton is breaking new ground.”

Other complications have dogged the recovery. Record-breaking floods in November washed out local highways, which were also intermittently closed over the winter for avalanche control.

In addition, the village sits within the Nlaka’pamux First Nation territory and residents require archaeological surveys to check for Indigenous artifacts before rebuilding. The Lytton First Nation, part of the Nlaka’pamux, also lost dozens of homes in the 2021 fire.

The limits of insurance

Around 60 per cent of Lytton residents were uninsured or under-insured, leading to delays in debris removal as residents and insurers grappled with who should pay. In March, the province said it would provide $C18.4 million to cover debris removal, archaeological surveys and soil remediation.


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