Canadian fire victims still suffer months after loss

Experts say Canada will see more fires and higher temperatures due to climate change

Edith Loring-Kuhanga wandered through the gymnasium at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School in Lytton, British Columbia, surrounded by clothing and other basic necessities piled high on foldable tables.

They were items donated after fire ripped through her tiny community on June 30, destroyed nearly everything in its path.

Ms Loring-Kuhanga remembers watching her home and her neighbours' properties engulfed in flames as ash rained from the sky.

“It was just like a horror movie,” she said. "Everybody was running and yelling, ‘Get out of here, get out of here'."

Months later, many residents are still living in hotels or with family and friends and unsure when, or if, they will ever be able to return to their homes.

Picking up the pieces

Determined to rebuild, the Village Council of Lytton in July outlined an ambitious plan for an infrastructure system that is energy efficient and to rebuild with fire-retardant materials.

But some villagers have grown frustrated with the council over what they say is a lack of communication and transparency.

Many have not even seen what personal belongings survived the blaze. Only last month they were given the name of a third-party organiser to help them safely go through their debris.

Lytton resident Jennifer Thoss said two of the organisations aiding these efforts are Evangelical Christian groups, which has made a portion of the Indigenous community in the village very uncomfortable.

In September, The National spoke with Lytton mayor Jan Polderman in Kamloops, a two-hour drive from Lytton.

Mr Polderman said he understood the villagers' frustrations, but progress on rebuilding had been stalled by higher levels of government, which at the time were still assessing the safety of the area.

He also said that the infrastructure required much work.

“All the foundations need to be removed,” Mr Polderman said. “Before we go back in, there is a hazard assessment that needs to get done, hazard mitigation and survey and reference points need to be re-established.”

He said he hoped to start rebuilding within a year and expected construction to last another year.

All the uncertainty has left Ms Loring-Kuhanga worried for the future of her once tight-knit community.

“Will we ever return back as one?” she asked. “Are people going to decide that it's too much to bear and not rebuild?”

Where there's heat

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is still investigating what caused the fire.

The exceptionally warm weather and dry conditions preceding it led to one of the most challenging wildfires seasons on record.

A 2019 report commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada found the country is warming at twice the rate of the global average.

In June, a heat dome settled over much of the Pacific North-West causing temperatures in British Columbia to reach record heights.

That same month, Lytton broke its own highest temperature on record, peaking at 49.6°C, hotter than it has ever been in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Canadian Wildland Fire Information System says the number of forest fires this summer was well above the 10-year average. The fires covered 4,182,542 hectares, just under twice the 10-year average.

British Columbia was especially badly hit. During this fire season, which started in April and runs to the end of October, there have been 1,614 fires recorded throughout the province, burning 868,186ha of land.

“When you have that hot weather paired with very dry fuel, add wind to that and it can make those fires very unpredictable and burn in really severe intensities, which can be challenging,” said Erika Berg, a BC wildfire information officer.

Mike Flannigan, research chair in Predictive Services, Emergency Management and Fire Science at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC, said it was concerning that the three biggest wildfire seasons recorded since 1950 have been in the past five years.

“Three or four decades ago, you'd see one or two challenging years in a decade," Mr Flannigan told The National.

"Now we're seeing three or four and in the coming decades it's going to be five or six. And some of those challenging years will be exceedingly challenging.”

Holding their feet to the fire

The people of Lytton increasingly frustrated with their elected leader's response to the community's needs and seriousness about climate change.

Their British Columbian neighbours to the east in Vernon, in the Okanagan Valley, are also showing growing concern. Both towns are a little less than six hours' drive from Washington state.

Mary Stockdale of Vernon, whose son is a firefighter and brother a fire researcher, said that she always thought her town of 40,000, with its three lakes and lush greenery, was insulated from the dangers of fire.

That changed this summer when temperatures soared and forest fires engulfed parts of the town, which she hopes is a wake-up call for both the government and fellow Canadians to take the consequences of climate change more seriously.

“It's a balance of personal individual change and system change,” said Ms Stockdale, who is an adjunct professor in culture and global studies at the University of British Columbia.

“It's about how we vote, how we engage democratically in our municipal, provincial and national levels of government, and in changing the system to make it easier to not emit so much.”

Newly re-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to expedite a goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and made other climate-friendly pledges while on the campaign trail.

To address the increase in wildfires, Mr Trudeau promised a $500 million investment to train 1,000 more firefighters across the country, and grant programmes for homeowners to assess and prepare their houses for extreme weather.

Ms Stockdale now keeps several duffle bags filled with clothes and documents packed and ready at her front door … just in case.

Updated: October 6th 2021, 8:16 PM