Wildfires BC 20210709
photography by darryl dyck/the canadian press

I Watched My Hometown Burn to the Ground

Three years after a fire wiped out Lytton, B.C., locals are just starting to rebuild their lives

July 4, 2024

On June 30, 2021, a wildfire ripped through Lytton, B.C. I lost my hometown that day. My family has been in Lytton since time immemorial: my mother is N’lakapamux from the Lytton First Nation, and my father’s family arrived in the town in the 1880s. I left home when I was 17 to attend university, but as an adult I returned every summer with my wife and children. I would fish for salmon with my uncles, and my kids would play all day in a treehouse my stepfather, Guy Neufeld, had built for them, complete with a fireman’s pole, a slide and a swing. I’m a theatre artist, and for the last 12 years I’ve written and staged plays based on N’lakapamux creation stories, starring an ensemble of community members and professional performing artists.

In the days leading up to the fire, Lytton was in the grip of a severe heat wave. Temperatures soared to 46.6 C, then 47.9 C, and finally, two days before the fire, 49.6 C. At that point, Lytton was the hottest place ever recorded in Canada. Both the CN and the CPR have rail lines through the Fraser Canyon linking the Port of Vancouver to the rest of Canada. Trains loaded with goods rumble through the canyon every day and, in the midst of the global pandemic, with supply lines strained, the traffic that summer was hectic. Many residents were concerned that trains travelling at full speed might set off sparks into the dry timber and desiccated brush lining either side of the tracks. Fires along the tracks were something locals were all too familiar with. In previous years, the railroads used water cars to douse the sides of the tracks as they rolled through. 

Just after 4 p.m. on the day of the fire, my parents were getting off work. My mom works at the local high school and Guy is one of the bus drivers. They were just finishing up the school year and getting ready for a relaxing summer break when my mom heard a train passing by. Minutes later, the sun was blocked and a dark shadow fell over Lytton. Guy went to Main Street and saw a massive smoke cloud rising at the end of town. Minutes later, hurricane-force winds blew fire through town like a blow torch, sucking the oxygen from up the canyon. The fire sent Guy running back to my mom’s house at Fourth and Fraser, the centre of town. He hollered at her to leave; she didn’t even have time to put on a pair of shoes. She grabbed her keys and purse, jumped in her car and headed out to Gladwin Creek, 10 kilometres up the Trans-Canada Highway.

There were many heroes that day. Guy helped save six people. He knocked on doors, warned neighbours the town was on fire, and even broke into Mona Crowston’s house to wake her up from her nap. Mona has a bad hip, and he carried her out as the flames roared up the side of her house. Within 12 minutes, the fire travelled from the railroad tracks to the centre of town. Twenty minutes later, Lytton was lost and two people were dead. 

That afternoon, I was sitting in my backyard in Metcalfe, Ontario, with my wife, planning our annual trip to Lytton. Suddenly, my social media feed was blowing up. I ran into my home office and turned on my computer. I watched a Facebook livestream as my hometown burned to the ground. I felt as though I was burning: my body contorted in agony, shock and horror at the sight of my beloved little town reduced to ashes in just a few minutes. I had no idea if my family made it out. I couldn’t reach them. The fire raged eastward across the CPR Thompson River Bridge at the other end of town and up the mountainside, burning through Alkali flats, the ranch land where I spent much of my childhood. It destroyed more homes up into the Botany Valley, including my cousin’s house and the one my grandfather built, where my father grew up. 

The fire eviscerated more than 90 per cent of the structures in Lytton, including my mother’s home and a neighbouring reserve. Immediately after the fire broke out, then Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman blamed the train. However, despite the recurring history of rail-related fires along the track, over 83,000 hectares of destruction and two deaths as a result of the fire, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, or TSB, only conducted a level-five investigation into the possible rail involvement of the fire, their second-lowest tier in their six-tier system of investigations. 

Eventually, the TSB concluded that there were no anomalies associated with train activity that would indicate that it started the fire, seeming to exonerate CN and CPR. It was reported that the investigators did not interview Lytton residents, including eyewitnesses who claim they saw the fire start, and that investigators determined that the fire originated less than five feet from the centre of the track. Train cars are approximately 10 feet wide. 

Since the fire, Lytton residents have been at the mercy of insurance companies, disaster relief agencies like the Red Cross and the kindness of friends, family and strangers. Most initially fled to neighbouring communities, but as the fires raged through the B.C. interior that summer, they hopped from one town to the next; many ended up in hotels in Kamloops or down the coast. Today many survivors are still spread out in the province and neighbouring communities. Camp Hope, near Hope, B.C., opened its summer cabins to survivors. The Lytton First Nation eventually built a tiny-home village on the grounds of the old St. George’s Residential School in Lytton. My mother now lives in a rental in Ashcroft, an hour’s drive away from Lytton. She still commutes to work at the high school in the town, which survived the fire. 

I tried to do my part, too. My theatre company, Savage Society, helped distribute food, clothing and other basic materials that folks needed. Ronnie Dean Harris, a long-time friend and artistic collaborator of mine, set up a drop-off depot at the Massey Theatre in New Westminster and delivered supplies to the Skuppah First Nation, just down the road from Lytton. There were scores of volunteers who helped out and donated. The outpouring of support was heartwarming.

Through Savage Society, we also put together a GoFundMe campaign that raised over $530,000. We partnered with the Lookout Society, a Vancouver charity that helps vulnerable adults, to distribute the money directly to survivors of the Lytton fire who lost their homes.

Wildfires Lytton 20220614

Rebuilding in the village has finally begun in the last few months. But it’s been a slow process complicated by red tape. Toxic materials from the fire contaminated large swaths of Lytton; they had to be removed and back-filled with new material. The infrastructure, water mains, sewer lines and electrical grid were ruined and had to be replaced. Lytton, known in our N’lakapmux’stn language as tlKumcheen, is the longest continuously settled village site in North America. People have lived there for more than 7,000 years, so every yard is an archaeological site. If you dig for construction, the province mandates that you need archaeologists to sift the dirt for artifacts, and the homeowner is on the hook for their bill, which can run up to tens of thousands of dollars.  

In the weeks following the fire, CN repaired its damaged bridge and had trains running again in 13 days. Meanwhile, it’s been three years since the fire, but only five building permits have been issued in the village this spring. My mom and Guy hope to start their rebuild this fall.

When I think of Lytton, I think of people like Peggy Chute, a long-time resident and local super-volunteer. Her husband, Joe, was my elementary school principal and mayor of Lytton for 14 years. Nobody loves Lytton like Peggy does. She has greeted tens of thousands of travellers at the little brown tourist info centre that she ran. It was in front of the Lytton Pool, which she helped to keep running every year. Across the street from Caboose Park with the old decommissioned orange CPR caboose, which she also helped care for. Surrounded by the pretty flowers that she planted, watered and tended in the hot summers. And right across the street from my family home.

In the good old days, Peggy would be tending to the flowers in the park or out front of the information centre, greeting friends and strangers with enthusiasm. Peggy poured her heart and soul into Lytton. Now, in her late 80s, she is left without answers. Too old to rebuild, her property is up for sale. But who will buy a burnt-out yard in the hottest place in Canada?

Kevin Loring is a co-author of Lytton: Climate Change, Colonialism and Life Before the Fire.