Fire, flood and what comes next: How two devastated B.C. communities are weighing whether to rebuild or retreat

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LYTTON, BC — There’s a daffodil growing in Tricia Thorpe’s basement.

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At least, the trumpet-shaped yellow flower has sprouted up through the dirty plateau that used to be her basement. Now, after the fire, the space looks more like an oversized garden bed waiting to be planted.

For Thorpe, standing on the exposed earth where she and her husband, Don Glasgow, shared their home as recently as a year ago, the blossom seems like a sign of resilience.


The couple can use all the encouragement they can get as they try to do what very few others who lost their homes in Lytton now can: Come back and start to rebuild.

There are signs of survival all over their patch of land, like the hole dug by Thorpe’s dogs to make a shelter for their litter of puppies as the Lytton fire tore through.

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When Thorpe and Glasgow, whose rural property lies on the high ground above the Thompson River and overlooking parts of the village of Lytton, saw the June 30 fire swallowing buildings in the village below, they responded to calls to go down to help their neighbors and friends evacuate. By the time they made it into the village, about a 10-minute drive, the fire had jumped the Thompson and torn toward their home.

While under evacuation, they were told it was likely that everything — their house, their pets, their barn full of alpacas, sheep and chickens — was lost. On top of devastation over their animals, they were fearful about their future; like many in Lytton, they didn’t have insurance.

Days passed before they got word that, though the house Glasgow had built was destroyed, some of their animals had lived.

“We talked about not coming back, briefly. But that’s when we thought everything was gone,” Thorpe said. “We had a purpose with the animals and we had people that were wanting us. That’s huge — to be included.”

It’s costing Thorpe and Glasgow their life savings and debt on top of that, as well as countless hours of work, to risk fights with regional authorities and rebuild a house next to their burnt one. And if they had lived in the central village of Lytton, the rules around cleanup might have postponed the rebuild anyways.

Thorpe and Glasgow don’t have permits to rebuild. Nobody in Lytton does either, but the couple live outside of the village center in the jurisdiction of the regional district. There, they felt isolated and in danger of falling through the cracks — without insurance, and without assurance that any of the aid filtered through the village of Lytton would find its way to them.

“We did what we had to do. What any reasonable person would have done,” Thorpe said. They got help from family and friends, and started building by themselves.

The personal toll of Thorpe’s and Glasgow’s decision reveals something that is true about many climate disasters, and something that Canadians will need to learn as such disasters become more common because of climate change. Rebuilding what communities had before a catastrophic fire or storm can be one of the biggest financial and emotional burdens of the disaster victims’ lives. Some people and communities painfully choose not do it, and others couldn’t if they tried.

After the dust settles from a fire or the water from a catastrophic flood drains away, it’s the quintessential question disaster victims face: do we rebuild or retreat?

It’s the same question Terry Kozma and Rick Gahwiler are facing.

Living between a dike and a highway in the low-lying Sumas region of Abbotsford, they were among the early victims of BC’s record-breaking floods last fall.

Their story differs from Thorpe’s and Glasgow’s in important ways.

Unlike Thorpe and Glasgow, they got advance warning, and evacuated. When they came back after the flood to rescue their cats, they found their house and Gahwiler’s workshop in six feet of water, destroying many of their possessions.

“When we came into our property, it was like a soup bowl. We were able to get our cats who were up high. We grabbed them and then we couldn’t come back until December,” Kozma said.

Rick Gahwiler, left, and Tery Kozma, whose house was heavily damaged during flooding last November, pose outside it in Abbotsford, BC, on Saturday, May 7, 2022. They're doing what they can to make it livable while the community decides what how much flood protection it wants — and where.

Six months after the flood, Kozma and Gahwiler have cobbled together enough money to get the house in livable condition, but they know that on this stretch of land, it’s all but certain to flood again. Whether and how they can leave, though, isnt an individual decision as it was for Thorpe and Glasgow. They’re awaiting city consultations that will decide the future of the Sumas area as a whole — and what’s on the table for them.

The real-life stakes associated with answering these questions are playing out right now in two BC communities decimated by climate disasters: Lytton, which was burnt by fire, and Sumas, the farming region of Abbotsford that drowned in floodwaters four months later. Their decisions are the crucial and painful ones Canadians will have to face for years to come as climate disasters become more common.

These two communities reveal how the question of rebuilding or retreating can seem as unfair and arbitrary as the climate disasters themselves.

Canada, which climate change is warming twice as fast as the world average, will experience a greater number of related disasters in the coming years and decades. Scientists such as Joanna Eyquem, managing director of climate-resilient infrastructure at the University of Waterloo’s Intact Center on Climate Adaptation, have been urging governments at all levels and individuals to plan for this reality — to acknowledge that while mitigating effects by reducing carbon use is important, changing the infrastructure and the planning of the places we live to withstand disasters may be just as urgent.

“Climate change is often seen as a future problem, but actually, it is a now problem,” she said. “For any infrastructure design from now forward, it needs to be designed to cope with extremes.”

Canada is working on a national climate resiliency plan, which will include money to fund projects aimed at protecting communities from the effects of climate change. But before that is completed, Lytton and Sumas offer a preview of the challenging personal and government choices that are involved in planning for a changed climate — deciding what gets protected and what does not.

And although the instinct of many may be to protect as much as possible, the realities of climate change force us to have a different conversation — to consider whether safeguarding an area will be worth it for generations to come.

“Retreat means basically moving out of areas we know are at risk and I think we’re getting to the point of having that conversation in Canada,” Eyquem said. “When we rebuild areas at risk, we are tying in future generations to defend that decision as well.”

‘A little village’

There are hundreds of stories like Thorpe’s emanating from the Lytton fire — stories of individuals’ and families’ escape, refuge and loss — that form nodes in a collective history of the community that was quickly and decisively crumpled by disaster. The little village that called itself “Canada’s Hot Spot” broke the national record for hottest temperatures and the next day burned to the ground, leaving little more than shadows of ash and rows of exposed chimneys to mark the village that had been there.

Ask anyone who was around Lytton at the time of the blaze and they will be sure to mention certain things. The first is the wind, which is often strong there but that day was ferrocious, pushing the fire through the town at speeds of 60 to 90 kilometers an hour, depending on whom you ask. Many tell of knocking on their neighbour’s doors in desperation to spur evacuations as the fire wove its opportunistic way through the village, devouring homes but leaving seemingly random items such as a children’s playset intact.

The toll of the destruction was 124 properties in the village, 45 Lytton First Nation properties, and 34 rural properties outside the boundaries of the municipality or First Nation. Two people died in the fires. In the village centre, 90 per cent of buildings were reduced to burnt rubble. The near-totality of the destruction was referenced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a climate summit in Glasgow last fall, when he said there “was a village called Lytton” in Canada — emphasis on the past tense.

The degree to which Lytton will be restored remains to be determined. But a closer look at how BC’s emergency responses are working in the town show how the crucial post-emergency question — rebuilt or retreat — is an especially heavy load for a small place such as Lytton to bear.

In the ideal scenario, the municipality, province and insurance companies work together to respond to a disaster. But in Lytton, most people who lost their homes either had no insurance or not enough. And even when BC offered additional funding, the town’s humble three-person council was too small and inexperienced to take the lead on co-ordinating the cleanup. The person now running the emergency response says the town still does not have a complete list of its residents and their contact information, to take one example.

Despite the challenges, those who remain in the area assert it’s too soon to write Lytton off. Many are determined to rebuild there, as Thorpe is doing, but can’t until the cleanup and archeological work required by provincial standards takes place.

Meanwhile, many residents have stuck around. A majority of the homes outside of the village area — representing most of the 2,500-person population of the broader Lytton area — are still livable and lived-in. What’s at stake for everyone — Lytton residents, rural residents and First Nation members alike — is the village hub, and whether the businesses and residents of the village will return it to the self-sustaining community it used to be, complete with a grocery store , medical office and ambulance services.

Robert Salewski, a Lytton First Nation member,…


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