It only took 15 minutes for the Lytton to burn out completely.
It was the end of June, summer in the northern hemisphere, and the small community in British Columbia was already making news across the country, recording the highest temperature ever in Canada: 49.6 degrees Celsius.
Resident Meryl Barber recalls how the weather was “too hot to describe”.
“I started getting out of bed at 4 a.m. to do things outside because it was impossible to do in the middle of the day,” she says.
Many people avoided the streets because of the heat, and Lytton was quieter than usual.
Only 250 people lived in the small village, and the surrounding Indian reservations housed another 1,000 people. The scenic community is located 260 km northwest of Vancouver, at the confluence of two rivers, the Thompson and the Fraser.
The inhabitants describe the place as a community with close ties, immersed in the history of the indigenous people. It was a place where “everyone knows everyone” in the words of one of them.
Barber moved there a decade ago, and he immediately felt right at home.
“I’ve found a place where I feel welcome in many ways,” she recalls. “I call them the (neighbor’s) family.”
On the day of the fire, June 30, Barber was focused on getting home from work when he saw flames and smoke rising from the city.
Fires are common in British Columbia summers, so Barber did not pay much attention, believing that the flames would soon be contained.
But after getting back to his work vehicle and back in town, he saw a fire truck passing by, set off the alarm and blocked the road. A firefighter warned him that there was a fire in Lytton.
“I looked at him but didn’t understand what he was saying,” she says. “I saw the fire in the road and it wasn’t everywhere, it was in one place.”
On the roadside along with the other residents, Barber manages to make two phone calls before his cell phones shatter. The first is to see if some of her elderly friends are safe. The second is to ask the owner to take her cat inside – she locked him inside to protect him from the outside heat.
For the next six hours, she waited for the news as she watched her city burn.
Meanwhile, resident N’kixw’stn James, who’s spent her life in Lytton, was finishing showering and watching TV when a man entered her house screaming, “You gotta get out of here. Lytton is on fire.”
James, 76, rushed into the bedroom and replaced his pajamas with clothes. Grabbing a bag of things in case of eviction, she grabbed her wallet, car keys, and cell phone while the man yelled at her to get out.
“When I got out, I saw a storm of hot ash,” she recalls.
I ran into the car, the steering wheel was so hot that it burned her hand.
“I started driving away from my house. A few meters later, I heard an explosion. And my propane tank exploded.”
James kept driving, trying to find a safe path through the smoke blocking his view. When he took refuge in the shelter, he was helped by a nurse who took care of his arms, legs, and face – all of which were burned by the ashes.
Across the Fraser River, Noni McCann witnessed the devastation.
She had received a phone call from a neighbor around 5 p.m., asking if she knew where the smoke was coming from outside of Lytton. Then she learned that the city was on fire, and a friend asked her if she and her husband could help by setting up some kind of water pumping station.
“We were devastated seeing entire houses engulfed in flames,” he recalls. “They were homes for people we knew. We weren’t lucky enough to start pumping water, and the smoke was so thick. So we had to go back.”
She says she experienced a wave of emotions: “the sheer terror of what I was seeing, the sheer pain of a catastrophic loss, the anxiety, the hope that everyone could escape safely.”
Unable to help, she sat and watched from the riverbank “building by building was swept away in flames” and helicopters splashing with water.
The hardest part, she says, is not being able to connect with people.
In other parts of British Columbia, relatives of Lytton residents have been anxiously awaiting the news.
Verna Miller learned about the fire from her husband, who watched the tragedy on TV.
The couple met in Lytton, and Miller’s older sister still lives there. A cousin who lives 30 minutes away ran into town to help her.
When the cousin arrived, Miller’s sister was still ignorant that the fire was destroying her community.
Both managed to get out in time to escape the fire that destroyed the house and everything inside.
Back on the side of the highway where Meryl Barber was waiting, she arranged for her friends to take her to a fire escaped house.
She spent the next few days there, without access to clean water or electricity, and used a propane stove for cooking.
She then learned that her house had succumbed to a fire and her cat was inside.
90% of the city was destroyed
According to Brad Weiss, a local MP, the whole tragedy unfolded in just 15 minutes of the shooting. In total, about 90% of the city was destroyed, and many surrounding forest reserves were completely burned.
It was an “unprecedented situation – even in this part of our world, where fires happen annually,” says Weiss.
“Some of the first responders I spoke to told me they had never seen an entire community burnt like in Lytton.”
The issue has become symbolic amid a summer of deadly heatwaves and other fires, putting climate change at the center of debates in Canada’s Monday (9/20) election, convened by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a bid to secure a majority in Parliament – a strategy that could fail. Where his party faces an intense conflict with the Conservatives.
In the campaign, many candidates used the Lytton tragedy as a warning about global warming effects, while the exact origin of the fire is still being investigated.
“The cost of not taking any action (against climate change) has been the destruction of an entire city with forest fire,” said Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the Social Democratic Party.
Heat waves are becoming more common and extreme due to climate change caused by human behaviour, and this hot, dry weather favors fires.
The world’s temperature has risen by about 1.2 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the industrial age, and temperatures will continue to rise if governments around the world do not make drastic cuts in emissions of polluting gases.
In Lytton, the displaced community is now trying to rebuild itself – including trying to make the new village more resistant to fire and other natural disasters, and less dependent on external sources of energy.
Noni McCann says: “This is[arareopportunitytocreateasocietywithavisionofthefuture:takingintoaccountextremeclimatephenomenaandworkingcollaborativelywithindigenousandnon-indigenouspeoples”[فرصةنادرةلإنشاءمجتمعذيرؤيةللمستقبل:معمراعاةالظواهرالمناخيةالمتطرفة،والعملبشكلتعاونيمعالشعوبالأصليةوغيرالأصلية”[eumaoportunidaderaradecriarumacomunidadecomumavisãoparaofuturo:levandoemcontaeventosclimáticosextremostrabalhandoemcolaboraçãocompovosindígenasenãoindígenas”argumentaNonieMcCann
“There will be huge struggles and difficulties to overcome, but step by step, day in and day out, let’s celebrate our community once again.”
Meanwhile, Meryl Barber lives inside her truck. She managed to recover some objects from the wreckage of her home – a sculpture, a jewelry case, a small trailer – but most of the rest turned to ashes.
“I have a son who died, and all the memories I have kept of him, (with) a beloved quilt my mother made and more artworks made by me or others, all that I have carefully kept for years—all that is gone and irreplaceable.”
But despite the “layers of grief” the fire has experienced, she says she is thinking with the local community about the future.
“The motto is ‘Leighton Strong’ and we look forward to it with great anticipation.”
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