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'We're so frustrated': Lytton resident questions why rebuild is taking so long

Frustrated with slow progress

A Transportation Safety Board investigation that found a train was not to blame for the fire that consumed Lytton has sparked dozens of villagers to protest along a rail line outside of town. Online, hundreds of people have signed a petition calling for a new federal investigation, one that includes resident witnesses.

But for others, bigger questions loom. Three and a half months after the devastating fire, residents are far from returning to their homes.

"They're scattered all over. They're still displaced," says Edith Loring-Kuhanga, a school administrator at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, located about five kilometres outside of town.

Loring-Kuhunga, who lost her home when the blaze levelled downtown Lytton on June 30, now spends most of her time in Victoria, returning to Lytton whenever she can find an available Airbnb rental.

She says access to her and other villagers' properties has been extremely limited.

"The only time we were able to go back was when we were sifting through the ashes to see if there are any keepsakes," she tells Glacier Media.

Residents, she adds, had to be accompanied by volunteers from organizations like Christian Aid Ministries and Team Rubicon, which was scheduled to wrap up its work this week, according to a written update from the Village of Lytton.

Loring-Kuhunga says she was given one opportunity to see her torched home on Sept. 10.

"We cannot go in there by ourselves. They do the sifting, and we watch," she explains. "Everyone is trying to sift through their homes before the winter comes and destroys what's left."

"That's why we're so frustrated."

When Loring-Kuhunga evacuated the day of the fire, she fled to the school where she works to help set up an emergency muster station. Roughly 200 people sought shelter there in the early days.

She says in downtown Lytton, where the fire is said to have destroyed 90 per cent of the town, the majority of the population is elderly.

"I worry about them. It's (aged) 75-plus people. They're still displaced. How are they going to manage?"

A SLOW GOVERNMENT RESPONSE?

In the early days following the evacuation of Lytton, the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD) offered up a portion of its offices in Kamloops to the village's mayor and council. TNRD board chair Ken Gillis says the regional body is doing everything it can to assist.

But when it comes to bringing residents home and rebuilding the town, he says that's ultimately up to the village and provincial authorities.

"I know that there have been problems for some considerable time," he says. "There seems to be some disconnection between the town and the provincial authorities that are dealing with that — getting people back into their homes."

A spokesperson for Emergency Management BC (EMBC) says impacted communities lead wildfire recovery. Advice, expertise and dedicated resources are provided at the request of communities like Lytton.

In Lytton's case, that means providing money to hire numerous positions to help the recovery, including a re-entry manager to coordinate ash sifting, debris removal and critical infrastructure works.

"That team works daily with the village and Lytton First Nation on recovery planning, providing advice and support," says EMBC spokesperson Jordan Turner in an email.

Turner says EMBC is still providing emergency support services to people who lost their primary residence or who are on evacuation orders. He says the province also made a formal request to the federal government for assistance through Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements on July 29 and is waiting for a response.

This week, the Village of Lytton announced all insurance assessments had been completed. The Insurance Bureau of Canada says residents of the village have sustained $78 million worth of insured claims.

Burnt trees are still being pruned and removed from the village, and Interior Health is working with a company to restore water.

Meanwhile, security fencing and 24-hour surveillance are still up around burned properties, according to the village. Once cleanup is complete, the village says surveying will re-establish property lines.

A spokesperson for the Fraser Basin Council says it’s looking to refine a plan for safe re-entry into the village over the next week. That plan, says Denise Hoskins, includes toxic debris removal, onsite temporary housing and providing essential services.

Glacier Media reached out to Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman but has not received a response.

WHEN PARADISE BURNED, IT TOOK SIX WEEKS TO RETURN

June's record-setting heat wave drove Lytton into the international spotlight. The village set and reset Canada's all-time temperature record for two consecutive days, now at a scorching 49.3 C.

When the devastating fire swept through the town the next day, Steve Crowder took notice.

In 2018, Crowder was appointed councillor of Paradise, California. Two days later, the 180,000-acre Camp fire burned through Paradise, destroying 95 per cent of the homes and leaving 27,000 people with nothing.

"I left my home that day with [the] clothes on my back, and that was it," he says.

The mayor quickly reached out to his counterpart in Lytton. Soon, his community had gathered $11,000 in gift cards to pass out to the residents — gift cards Crowder says were a lifeline when his community was decimated.

While in another jurisdiction under a different set of laws and expectations, Paradise's experience offers valuable insight into how fast a community can return home after a devastating wildfire.

In the weeks after Paradise burned, the Californian mayor says hundreds of thousands of gift cards were handed out at an emergency centre set up at an old Sears building. The town council and staff, the Salvation Army and other government and non-profit groups, gathered to hand out aid.

"There were just wall-to-wall people coming through," he says.

For six weeks, the town was off-limits as emergency and recovery personnel cleared debris, burned trees and downed power lines, and looked for bodies. In the end, 85 people died in the Paradise fire. When six weeks passed, residents returned to their homes to sift through what was left of their belongings.

When they drove into town, they had to show identification to prove they lived there. Residents were given protective suits — think lightweight HAZMAT suits — and were given an 8 p.m. curfew.

"They could stay all day if they wanted. We didn't have any restrictions," recalls Crowder.

Still, he adds, people were screaming at officials, saying six weeks wasn't quick enough. When asked if he could have kept people away for the three-and-a-half months Lytton residents have endured, he was unequivocal: "There's no way."

"That's a long time to make it safe."

EMBC's Turner says sifting through the debris had to be done under supervision "to ensure the safety of residents and compliance to [WorkSafeBC] procedures." Turner notes that sifting is expected to be completed "imminently" and has already been completed for Lytton First Nation.

Back in Lytton, a delayed return isn't the only thing concerning Loring-Kuhunga.

The school administrator says she and other residents understand the mammoth task of rebuilding a town but are asking for some accountability from the mayor and three councillors.

"They can't even distribute $30,000 of gift cards donated to the evacuees after the fire. We still have not received them. So how are they going to build back?" she questions.



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