So far, in British Columbia this year, there have been 1458 wildfires.
People living in the northwest and on the west coast may have enjoyed a smoke-free summer but for those of us living in the Okanagan, or Kootenays, we are getting our share of burning forests, smoky skies, or close calls thanks to one thunderstorm after another.
But few rural communities have experienced anything like Lytton did last summer.
If you walked the streets of Lytton, British Columbia today you’d be forgiven if you thought the wildfire that flattened the community and killed two people happened this year instead of in 2021.
Between government bureaucracy, insurance agencies, and the archeological significance of the land under the rubble — it was an important meeting place between coastal and interior indigenous peoples, and an area settled upon up to 10,000 years ago — the recovery process has been slow. Most residents have been unable to return or even access temporary housing there and are living with friends or family in other areas of the province.
But at the mouth of the Botanie creek, three kilometres north of Lytton, and two devastating wildfires later, Tricia Thorpe has been busy rebuilding her life.
“When the fire happened, we lost our entire hobby farm,” Tricia says. “There was nothing left standing.”
The wildfire that flattened Lytton on June 30 last year, and made international headlines during last summer’s heat dome, was the culprit.
“We were trying to help evacuate Lytton, and we never realized how much danger our farm was in,” Tricia recants. “Later we got the animals out that had survived. We lost two adult dogs, but all the puppies, alpaca, and one badass cat made it.”
Their house, barns, a woodworking shop, chicken coops, and gardens were also destroyed.
Tricia was raised on a farm near Rossland, B.C., and has lived on the Lytton property for twelve years. It has been in her husband’s family for decades and isn’t just land. It’s more like a family member.
“He’s the fourth generation in Lytton,” Tricia says of her husband. “And they bought this property before he was born. Almost 70 years ago.”
Love may have brought Tricia to Lytton, but the community has also kept her there.
“Whether you’re a hippie or a redneck, you all get along,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be the divisions you get in a bigger place, and it’s good because it allows you to have more than one way of seeing the world.”
Despite having lost everything, Tricia stayed, and with the help and generosity of others, they started rebuilding as soon as possible.
While the Lytton fire was a catastrophic event, Tricia believes that other communities in the province will have a similar experience thanks to hotter summers and dryer forests.
“Climate change is happening right now, and we need boots on the ground,” she say.
Tricia has lessons to share and hopes by sharing her experience, she might help others avoid or better prepare for a similar catastrophe.
“We are the only people in Lytton and the surrounding area rebuilding our house,” Tricia says. “And the only reason we’ve been able to do that is love and friendship.”
The physical ground that the Village of Lytton and the Lytton First Nations land is on were given a toxic designation by government investigators, and residents have been unable to return or rebuild.
Because Tricia’s property was under the regional district instead, however, they were not restricted by the label. And because wood heat was their main heat source during the winter, they were ineligible for fire insurance, and knew that financial government assistance would not be available.
“We fell between cracks,” Tricia explains. “So we used it to our advantage and did what we needed. No one was going to rescue us. We had to do it ourselves, and that’s where we were really lucky that we had such an incredible community.”
Living in a small and rural community has perks, especially in times of need. People from Lytton have helped pour cement, raise roofs, and build barns. Instead of a solo endeavour, rebuilding has been a genuine community effort.
“It’s just been incredible, the amount of labour and time people put in to help us get back on our feet.”
Last year, when they had nowhere to stay, their friends across the river invited them to live in a spare house and bring their animals.
It’s left Tricia feeling grateful to be living where she is.
“It’s overwhelming,” Tricia says. “My husband cried a lot, and he doesn’t cry. I feel very humble, and it makes you want to do whatever you can to help people that have helped you and pay it forward so that the next person doesn’t have to go through this.”
Tricia’s new home is nothing like that last one and is as fire smart as they come. She’s not going to let another fire ruin her home and livelihood.
The new build is basically a cement house with a metal roof. There are no overhanging eaves, power comes underground from a separate shed, and even the siding is cement.
Sprinkler systems stocked with fire-grade hoses sit on the house, shed, and barn, whose backside is now clad in metal.
“This wind comes from that direction, and we have metal on the barn roof so we can mitigate any chance of anything like this ever happening again,” Tricia says.
Inside they have radiant heat under the floor, a backup electrical panel hooked up to a generator, and down the road, when they have more money, they hope to set up a solar system so they can produce their own power.
“It’s not done, and we are on a very tight budget. But we have built it as fire smart as we can,” Tricia says.
Be Prepared. Be Proactive.
The same summer as the 2021 fire, Tricia was surprised to learn how Logan Lake — a rural municipality nine times as populated as Lytton and a 90-minute drive northeast — managed to face a fire of its own and come out on top.
Homes and commercial properties in the area were destroyed or damaged, and grazing pastures ranchers rely on were torched, but no structures in the town of Logan Lake were lost.
“They managed to save the town by having a sprinkler system set up,” Tricia says. “It is called a WASP sprinkler system, and it hooks onto the eaves of your house. My husband and I drove up to Logan Lake and looked at them; they’ve got four different systems. They were proactive.”
Being proactive on vegetation management is another priority, in Tricia’s opinion.
“There was a bank in the village coming up from the railway track with lots of dried weeds,” she says. “It was a fire hazard yearly, and I know that residents talked to the village about it. We need to keep our vegetation down.”
Governments can do better.
Today the village of Lytton is still under a state of emergency.
There’s no rebuilding, it is a flattened and charred ghost town, and a quick search on Google maps has labelled every former business or service ‘temporarily closed.’
“People are stuck in limbo, waiting for this government entity to talk to that entity to see who’s going to pay for what,” Tricia says. “We have no basic amenities here. There is no grocery store.”
The inaction has hit Tricia hard personally.
This past April, her husband had a severe heart attack. The emergency services centre that used to be in Lytton was still gone, and the nearest hospital and ambulance were 55 minutes away in Lillooet.
“I drove us there in 37 minutes,” Tricia says. “If we hadn’t done that, he’d be dead.”
Tricia would like to see Lytton come back to life. To get there, she thinks governments must work better together and listen more to residents on the ground.
“People need to come back,” Tricia says. “A key component is that they haven’t made their people a priority,” Tricia says.
The threat of another fire still hovers in Tricia’s mind. She’s doing everything right to avoid falling victim to heat and flames again.
And by taking physical steps to prevent and prepare, she hopes people will move back and life will return to normal.
But she warns us that nothing can prepare you for the emotional toll it all takes.
“I don’t think people realize how catastrophic it can be and how much of a ripple impact it has.”
Tricia has seen firsthand how fires affect those fighting them. And she’s done her part there too.
“We took our puppies to the fire station twice,” Tricia says. “They had a rough day. Snuggling with the puppies, and the smiles on their faces made me feel great. Whatever you can do, it’s letting people know that you care and are there.”
Tricia’s done her fair share of asking politicians to do more and making recommendations that go nowhere. Which is why on top of providing free snuggles with fluffy friends, raising wool-bearing bovids, and lifting wooden beams, she is running to be a director for her regional district this fall.
“Change needs to happen, and right now, I’m shouting into the wind,” Tricia says. “Maybe if I’m on the inside, I can whisper into the right ear.”