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Here’s what the devastating Lytton, B.C. blaze says about the future of fire in Western Canada


Here’s what the devastating Lytton, B.C. blaze says about the future of fire in Western Canada

For days, the tourists came — to eat ice cream, browse local stores and to “experience history,” as one put it — as the tiny village of Lytton, B.C., logged the hottest temperatures in Canadian history.

That was, until Wednesday night, when the flow of cars on the Trans-Canada Highway reversed, violently so, as visitors and locals alike fled just ahead of a fast-moving wildfire.

On Friday, what remained was devastation.

At least two people are presumed dead and other residents remain unaccounted for, though the exact number remains unclear. Images from Lytton show row upon row of buildings, including the clinic, the post office and the RCMP detachment, turned to ash, and trees reduced to gnarled stumps.

The speed of the fire was such that after the evacuation order was issued Wednesday evening, residents scrambled to grab pets and car keys as the flames advanced just blocks away. At least one woman fled the flames barefoot.

The village, whose dry weather had earned it the nickname “Canada’s Hot Spot,” has now largely been wiped off the map. The neighbouring First Nation has sustained major damage and hundreds have been displaced from their homes. Locally, the blaze has raised questions about the province’s emergency preparedness — one chief says he got a call from an official asking about the welfare of his cattle before he was contacted about plans for his people — as well as the future of fire in this province.

The wildfire has the “fingerprints of climate change all over it,” an expert says.

Experts further say that the blaze may be an indicator of things to come — a product of hotter, drier summers resulting from human-caused climate change, during which those who live here will have to learn to live with fire.

The question remains: Is Western Canada ready for that future?

When a wildfire gets moving quickly, there are tiny embers — bits of flaming bark or needles or twigs — that are carried by the wind up to a kilometre or two ahead of the main wall of fire.

Like advance scouts, they start mini fires of their own, which all, eventually, join forces to produce a quick-moving inferno, the kind that often advances so rapidly that people are running out their front doors while the back porch burns, says Mike Flannigan, a wildfire professor at the University of Alberta.

Located about four hours northeast of Vancouver, Lytton is a town of about 250 residents that depends on tourism, agriculture and the railway. The Lytton First Nation is located on 56 parcels of reserve land nearby. The town was built on the former site of a Nlaka’pamux village and became a stopping point during the gold rush before being named after Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a colonial secretary and novelist who is famous for being the first to begin a novel with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Almost 200 years later, it was the communities’ geographical location that may have contributed to their demise. Perched at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, the low mountains on either side form a valley that may have acted as a funnel for wind that fanned the flames, Flannigan said.

He stresses that the investigation is ongoing, and experts will likely spend months combing through ash and debris to first find the location of ignition so they can then, hopefully, unlock the secret of what led to the first spark.

But conditions are similar to when a devastating wildfire nicknamed “the beast” blasted through Fort McMurray in 2016, or the record-shattering fire season British Columbia saw in 2017.

“The conditions were extreme-extreme,” Flannigan says of the situation Lytton found itself in this week. “Fields were dry, it was exceedingly hot, dry and windy. … It was a powder keg; it just needed a spark.”

Dianne Miller had been feeling optimistic this week — pandemic travel restrictions had lifted in B.C., which meant more traffic for her business, Lyl’Towne Deli & Sandwich Shop, in Lytton. That was shattered when a community member rushed in Wednesday with a panicked look.

“Get out, now,” he implored.

Miller, 63, looked south down Main Street and saw towering flames advancing quickly about a block away. “It was orange and rolling down the street,” she recalled. She ran to her car and peeled away, leaving behind everything.

“I didn’t have time to grab my purse. It was that fast, that intense,” she said. “I have no ID, no driver’s licence, no medical card.”

Speaking to the Star as she was about to register at an evacuation centre in Merritt, a town just to the east, Miller said she and fellow evacuees were in a state of shock. She’d fallen in love with the village 25 years ago after escaping the congestion and “rat race” of B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

“There’s going to be a time when we all break down.”

As evacuees like Miller begin to figure out how to piece their lives back together, the enormity of the devastation of the Lytton Creek fire is still being calculated.

After obliterating most of the village, the wildfire continued to push north, fuelled by wind and tinder-dry conditions and razing more than 68 square kilometres, roughly half the size of Vancouver. As of Friday afternoon, it was still listed as “out of control.”

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said it’s been hard to keep tabs on where everyone ended up. It’s unclear whether anyone remains in the village due to a lack of cell service.

Details about conditions in the village are scant. The B.C. Coroners Service said Friday it had received reports of two deaths in the village. RCMP said it’s not yet safe to enter the area, though the coroners service said it was planning to access the community Saturday. Meanwhile, aerial photos show that numerous buildings and vehicles have been destroyed.

Farnworth has said that the roughly 1,000 people who managed to flee to safety will find very little left when they return. The Lytton Creek fire was one of nine wildfires across the province that the B.C. Wildfire Service had classified as “wildfires of note,” meaning they were “highly visible” or posed a “potential threat to public safety.”

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John Haugen, acting chief of Lytton First Nation, said that communication is one of the major hurdles communities are trying to overcome as they find themselves scattered across the interior of the province, as many people lost their phones to the fire or had weak connections.

“We have to do our utmost to keep (our people) safe and to keep them informed,” Haugen said. “And that’s hard when you lose cell service, land lines and hydro. There are many compounding issues that really limit your communication.”

The devastation ripping across B.C. doesn’t come as a surprise, said Ken Lertzman, professor emeritus of forest ecology and management at Simon Fraser University.

“This is exactly the kind of scenario that has been predicted by climate models for decades,” he said, adding that longer, drier summers with increased heat are the expected outcome of the province’s changing climate. “We’re going to see more of this type of thing.”

The strain of frequent fire seasons creates a “feedback loop,” as the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the smoke means more carbon gets into the environment, Lertzman explained.

The 2017 and 2018 fire seasons in B.C. released more than three times the carbon than all other sectors combined, he said, continuing that any action taken by humans to reduce carbon emissions are thus negated by the fires — which then contribute to the very same conditions that are creating the extreme seasons.

Reducing the impact of fires on the community is an expensive undertaking.

In 2020, a year where fewer fires were recorded than anticipated, B.C. spent approximately $213.8 million on fire-suppression efforts.

Natural Resources Canada, meanwhile, says Canadian wildland fire-management agencies have spent between $800 million and $1.4 billion annually over the past 10 years to protect Canadians, their homes and businesses and infrastructure.

The annual national cost of fire protection has exceeded $1 billion for six of the past 10 years, according to the NRC.

“We have a lot of tough choices that we’re going to have to face in terms of the relative costs of protection of communities (that) are in place, at rebuilding communities, of planning communities that will be more resilient to fire,” Lertzman said.

Community planning will need to adapt to take fire into consideration, he said, pointing to examples such as safe sites that are protected by non-burnable vegetation or playing fields to slow the spread of a fire into a neighbourhood. (While no plants are fireproof, broadleaf trees and other high-moisture plants are less-flammable than conifer trees.)

While Lertzman doesn’t expect to see mass-relocation as a result of the fires just yet, he said it’s possible we will reach that point. Recognizing areas that are high risk and not building there is just one tactic.

“I could imagine that at some point we would get to the point where we might sort of withdraw from communities — but I don’t think we’re there yet and that’s not what people are talking about,” he said.

The warmer it gets, the more fire we see, Flannigan added.

Not only does fuel get dryer, but fire seasons get longer — the Alberta government used to formally declare the start of the season on April 1 but in recent years that’s been bumped back to March — and lightning strikes are more likely. The amount of land burned by fire in Canada has doubled since the 1970s, a fact he attributes to human-caused climate change.

“It’s scary. The bottom line is we have to learn to live with fire,” he says. “And it’s a multi-prong, multi-faceted problem. There is no silver bullet, no vaccine, no quick fix here.”

There are strategies to be learned from Indigenous Peoples who, he notes, were using fire responsibly for thousands of years before being removed from their lands.

He adds that Ontario has a relatively progressive approach to fire, in which officials try to let fires burn as much as possible when they’re not endangering anyone. Fire isn’t inherently bad, he points out, and this approach removes old deadfall while letting new plants move in, which reduces the chance of larger fires in future.

After days of blistering heat, the temperatures in Western Canada have finally begun to drop, bringing some relief. But Haugen, of the Lytton First Nation, says this is likely not the end.

“We have to be prepared for even worse conditions,” he said.

Miller, the shop owner, said she’s all but certain her business and her home are gone. At one point, when she was at an evacuation centre in Lillooet, Haugen showed up and told evacuees whose houses were still standing, she said.

There were only a handful.

“Everybody knew from Facebook pictures that the town was demolished. You could look down Main Street, and you didn’t recognize a building, nothing.”

Miller said one of the things she’ll miss the most are the motorcyclists who would pass through town and take time to stop at her shop for a coffee or bite to eat, as well as the locals who would gather to “remember old times.”

“It’s not going to be the same.”

With files from Celina Gallardo and The Canadian Press

Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boydDouglas Quan is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquanJenna Moon is a breaking news reporter for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon

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