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Rebuilding Lytton: Difficult, complicated, and controversial

Jul 30, 2021

Plans to rebuild as a green community, with net-zero carbon emissions, has many worrying about long delays in returning home Author of the article: Article content Ruby Dunstan, 80, has lived in a Surrey hotel room for the past month, displaced from her beloved ranch in the Fraser Canyon when the wildfire devoured her hometown of Lytton on June 30. Advertisement Article content She is one of the lucky ones because her house west of the Fraser River is still standing. But Dunstan, a former chief of the Lytton First Nation, doesn’t know when she can return to the ranch without phone service or access to the services in town that were wiped out by the flames. We apologize, but this video has failed to load. Try refreshing your browser, or Rebuilding Lytton: Difficult, complicated, and controversial Back to video “We don’t have all the services that a person requires to live back home. And I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. We don’t have any ambulance service. We don’t have doctors. We don’t have anything. … The closest grocery store would be an hour away,” Dunstan said this week. “The trauma of losing our homes, of losing our schools, of losing our hospital, we are slowly getting over that. And now we’re trying to figure out: How are we going to build our community back? How are we going to make it happen so that it’s better than what it was before?” Advertisement Article content Lytton Village on fire on June 30. Photo by Karen Dunstan A month after a wildfire destroyed 90 per cent of the residences and businesses in the small town, as well as dozens of homes on nearby Lytton First Nation land, locals remain scattered in emergency accommodations across B.C. and are eager for their community to be rebuilt. But the questions — how? how quickly? — don’t come with easy answers. “How do we know we’re going to get enough money to build homes? Or what do we have to do in order to be able to say, ‘We’re going to go back home?’ Right now, some of us have nothing,” said Dunstan, who has both an honorary doctorate from the University of Victoria and a meritorious service medal from the Governor General for fighting industrial logging on her nation’s traditional lands. Advertisement Article content “Our home wasn’t burnt down, but still part of our lives was burnt when the town burnt.” Ruby Dunstan receives an honorary doctorate from the University of Victoria in 2015. Photo by ADRIAN LAM /TIMES COLONIST It took just 20 minutes, locals say, for flames to raze Lytton. Rebuilding will be a much longer ordeal, one that will require patience and resilience from the residents of the village and the five nearby First Nations communities. The Lytton mayor and council have formally partnered with the Lytton First Nation to come up with a recovery plan that would replace the community with a green, more fire-resistant one, but residents are concerned the idea doesn’t offer enough immediate help to those who are displaced. Not included in this plan is the Kanaka Bar Band, located just south of Lytton, which is offering a unique, short-term proposal to bring temporary trailers onto its land by Aug. 20 to house emergency services, essential businesses and basic but free housing for locals without homes. Advertisement Article content Chief Patrick Michell says this will allow some of the estimated 1,200 Lytton-area residents displaced by the fire, not just Kanaka Bar members, to return to the community while it is being rebuilt. “In less than 45 days, we completely rebuild Lytton, just 18 km south. And when Lytton’s repopulated, we just tear down the trailers,” Michell said. “This is not the permanent solution for Lytton. This is the sense of place, a sense of community, and the bridgehead to their homes.” Michell knows how desperate people are to return to Lytton. The fire destroyed his family’s house, too, and he’s now living in an Abbotsford hotel. “I’m hearing the stories now of people expressing suicidal ideations. They’re devastated. We need to bring people home.” Advertisement Article content Patrick Michell is chief of Kanaka Bar. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG The longer-term plan to create a new town, experts warn, must consider other priorities, such as using construction materials such as metal, planning fire-resistant landscaping, and thinning out forests that encroach on Lytton — to keep “Canada’s Hot Spot” community as safe as possible in the future, when climate change is expected to bring even longer wildfire seasons . “This community (needs) to build a place which is safer, stronger, smarter, resilient, but also culturally appropriate and be able to withstand future disasters,” said Bala Nikku, a Thompson Rivers University professor who is studying the resilience of communities after wildfires. Aim for a resilient community The recovery plan devised by Lytton village council and the Lytton First Nation has a timeline of 12 to 18 months, and aims to support residents to rebuild the town “according to their own vision” but as a climate-resilient community that is “relatively fire safe,” according to documents posted online this week. Advertisement Article content Postmedia was unable to reach the Lytton mayor and councillors for interviews, but the documents say the buildings and infrastructure would feature energy use that is net-zero for greenhouse gases. They also outlined a dozen tasks to be started by the end of August, including coordinating the cleanup of burned areas, identifying residents’ immediate needs and determining how to meet them, and gathering residents’ feedback on the rebuild. The mayor said government funding will be pursued to help pay the costs of these green goals. On Thursday, the town also launched the “ Lytton Rebuild ” fundraising drive online. It says the town’s rebuilding goals include a geothermal heating grid, using green energy, building with fire-resistant materials, planting drought-tolerant plants and trees, and installing photovoltaic (solar) road surfaces that could reduce heat absorption while powering street lights. Advertisement Article content Residents fear delays The village council presented its green plan during a Zoom meeting Wednesday night, but emotions and frustrations appeared high among some participants of a Facebook group popular with Lytton residents. Edith Loring-Kuhanga, the administrator of the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, said the majority of residents’ questions were not answered during the online discussion. “This was a very sad meeting,” posted Loring-Kuhanga, the former chair of the Greater Victoria District School Board. “They made some short-term and long-term decisions without ever consulting the community!” David Choi, owner of the local grocery store, posted on Facebook that he was frustrated he might not be able to rebuild his business until next spring, and other residents wondered if the green plan should be a priority if it requires new building codes and therefore could delay the reconstruction of their homes and community. Advertisement Article content Karen Dunstan. Photo by Karen Dunstan “Green-friendly is a great idea. But it takes time to do that. And I don’t think we have the time to do that,” said Karen Dunstan, the former Lytton First Nation economic development manager who now works for a Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council environmental services organization. “You’ve got to think about the residents that have lost everything. What is (the green plan) going to look like? … How soon are we going to get residents home? How soon are the businesses going to be able to rebuild?” Dunstan, who is staying in the same Surrey hotel as her mother Ruby, is happy the Lytton First Nation has partnered with the village council to plan the rebuild, and does not want to criticize the efforts people are making to start this difficult process. But she said bringing back essential services must be a top priority, and families need to be able to return to Lytton so children can attend school. Advertisement Article content Dunstan, a board member of the local Stein Valley school, said it recently adopted a 12-month calendar and students were supposed to begin classes at the end of July but, even though the school did not burn down, it’s still unclear when classes can resume. “There’s lots of work to happen before even thinking about rebuilding. So I think everybody needs to work together to come up with a short-term plan, and something that is going to be temporary until they do the building,” she said, adding all the local First Nations should be involved in the planning. The Thompson-Nicola Regional District issued an update this week, saying the Environment Ministry was to finish testing water, soil and air quality by this weekend, and damage had to be assessed before “coming up with a culturally safe re-entry plan.” It also said the province’s disaster financial assistance program will provide an estimated time frame for when the rebuild can start. Advertisement Article content The village council’s outline for the next two steps of the recovery plan, in fall 2021 and in 2022, had few details. The council did say it intends to consult with other fire-ravaged communities such as Fort McMurray, industries such as the CN and CP railways, and other neighbouring First Nations, but there were few specifics. Providing homes, services to the homeless Back on June 30, Michell was at work at the Kanaka Bar administrative offices south of the village when his wife texted to say their home on her ancestral land, on the Lytton First Nation north of the village, was on fire. The next day, when Michell woke up in an Abbotsford hotel, his first order of business was not to think about his own charred, uninsured house , but to start planning how he could use Kanaka’s land and resources — which escaped the flames — to help the larger Lytton community. Advertisement Article content What remains of Kanaka Bar Chief Patrick Michell’s house on Lytton First Nation lands. Photo by Patrick Michell He has ordered large construction trailers that are to arrive in the next few weeks. Some will be placed on Kanaka property along Hwy 1 to create a “service hub,” which could include a community centre with meeting spaces, a large kitchen and dining area, a daycare, and a store. Another trailer could be for emergency services, such as police and a hospital. There could also be a gas station on the site. On a second Kanaka property, more trailers will hold up to 38 bedrooms with adjoining bathrooms, and shared kitchen and living spaces. There will also be areas for up to 15 mobile homes that people could park on the property. The intention is to have these accommodations ready by Aug. 20, and that an estimated 70 to 100 people who lost their homes to the fire could live there free until their replacement homes are built. They will not be charged rent, but will be expected to perform jobs to help operate the housing and services, which will be overseen by a new legal entity, the Fraser Canyon Emergency Services Society, Michell said. Advertisement Article content Kanaka Bar will use part of its savings to cover the costs — $4 million to prepare the land and get services such as electricity, drinking water and wastewater connected; to rent, deliver and assemble the trailers; and to get them ready for use. It will cost another $1 million to operate them over the next year. Part of the Kanaka Bar lands. Photo by Patrick Michell Michell  has approached various governments for financial help, and he hopes the village council and the other neighbouring First Nations bands will join forces with Kanaka to create even more temporary spaces like these. Other leaders are unsure about the concept, he said, because it’s new and fast-moving. But he’s confident it will work and could be a model to help people in future disasters, arguing evacuees of previous Canadian wildfires were forced away from their homes for too long. Advertisement Article content “West Kelowna or Fort McMurray, the evacuees were shunted away, while people came in and took care of business. That’s not necessarily the best model,” he said. “So bring your families home.” In his own personal situation, Michell doesn’t know how long Emergency Management B.C. will continue to pay for the Abbotsford hotel rooms for him and his wife Tina, some of their children and grandchildren, and three dogs. He will not move into one of the new emergency bedrooms on the Kanaka land, as he prefers to offer them to others in need, so he hopes to get a trailer for his family to live in until he can rebuild their home. Chief Patrick Michell with daughter Serena Michell-Grenier, Fernando Vargas and one of the family’s dogs in Abbotsford Photo by Francis Georgian Michell has worked for several years now on climate change resilience, water and food security , and reducing potential fuel for fires, such as cedar hedges, tall grass and outdoor clutter, near buildings. He practised the same principles at his home on the Lytton First Nation, but not all his neighbours did, and he believes that is one reason why flames destroyed his place. Advertisement Article content Michell plans to rebuild his house with fire resistant metal panels, and will encourage his neighbours to do the same. 100 B.C. communities have fire-proofed their homes B.C. FireSmart , whose members include the B.C. Wildfire Service, Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C., Indigenous Services Canada and B.C. Parks, provides advice to communities about how to make them more resistant to wildfires. More than 100 B.C. communities have completed the steps to be rated FireSmart, said Ray Ault, director of prevention and mitigation for FireSmart Canada. Ray Ault, director of prevention and mitigation for FireSmart Canada. . Photo by FPInnovation This spring, the federal government released  guidelines for how to reduce fires when wild land meets urban settings. “That’ll be the thing that really helps the folks in Lytton and other communities make the transition from where they are now to where they want to be,” said Ault, who contributed to the province’s 2004 report on the Kelowna fires. Advertisement Article content The recommendations cover areas such as roofing, ignition-resistant siding, and landscaping — such as having no plants, flower boxes, bark mulch or anything flammable within 1.5 metres of homes. And even outside that zone, the recommendations call for “less flammable” greenery, such as deciduous trees, rather than easier-to-burn evergreen trees. The Toronto-based Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction issued a report in 2017 that concluded the majority of homes rebuilt after the 2011 Slave Lake, Alta., wildfire were rated as FireSmart, but not the homes reconstructed after the 2003 Kelowna blaze. “At Kelowna, the author has concluded that the level of wildfire hazard at private homes has risen since reconstruction to the extent that a future wildfire threat could, quite possibly, trigger a repeat of the 2003 disaster,” the report says. Advertisement Article content Phil Burton, a University of Northern B.C. expert on forestry and ecosystem management, said that while FireSmart is a good program, it is not enough to avoid future wildfires, because it focuses on relatively small patches of land and is voluntary, not mandatory. Instead, he has argued for several years now that the provincial government should revamp timber land-use plans to create fire protection zones on Crown land extending 10 to 20 km around communities vulnerable to wildfires. The idea would be to thin out these forests so there is less fuel for fire. “I’m talking about the large areas of Crown land that’s extensively owned and managed by the province that really needs a different set of rules for much greater distances. I mean, these fires are covering kilometres a day once they get rolling, so you can’t just tweak a 100-metre buffer around your town limits and say that will do the job,” Burton said. Advertisement Article content In response to questions from Postmedia, the government says it spent $22.4 million over the past two fiscal years to reduce fuel on Crown land near areas with higher wildfire risks. What the province calls “prescribed fire planning” took place on 11 square kilometres of Crown land in 2019 and 4.9 square km in 2020. Burton noted the Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether the Lytton fire was sparked by a passing train , and said maintenance to reduce wildfires should also be taken by industries that work in forests. The railways, for example, used to burn off the brush along the tracks, but now Burton says they use herbicides, which leave flammable brown, dead vegetation by the tracks. The railways deny any role in sparking the Lytton fire. This week, CN issued a statement saying growth along its tracks is primarily managed through mechanical removal. Herbicides are also used, but the railway insisted there is “minimal dead vegetation” because the herbicide used prevents the regrowth of plants. CP says it clears trees and brush near the tracks to mitigate fire risk. Bala Nikku, assistant professor of social work at Thompson Rivers University. Nikku, the Thompson Rivers University professor, argues not only is it important to rebuild Lytton as a more fire-resistant community, but also to reflect the unique characteristics of the town: Higher percentages than the Canadian average of Indigenous people and residents over 65 years. “How do you make senior-friendly marketplaces, senior-friendly paths,” said Nikku. “(And) there is a huge opportunity to integrate that Indigenous knowledge of knowing and living and honouring the earth, the soil, the water.” Share this Story: Rebuilding Lytton: Difficult, complicated, and controversial

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