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Former Lytton residents settle in new communities, await town rebuild after fire

The response to the Lytton fire has been inadequate and opaque, says former resident

Two women who lost their homes during the Lytton Fire on June 30, 2021 say they are among the lucky ones.

Both had good insurance to help them after fire devastated Lytton.

Michele Feist is living in a home she purchased in Williams Lake after the fire.

Judith Urquhart and her husband Ross are renting a house from the Ashcroft Indian Band while they wait to see if they will return to Lytton or not.

Feist is a retired nurse and said she has been blown away by the friendliness of Williams Lake.

“It has exceeded what I expected,” she said.

When she called while she was evacuated from Lytton, asking to find a place to buy in Williams Lake with a yard for her dog, Feist recalled being in a complete state of shock, and being told by a real estate agent “we have your back.”

The real estate agent said because of the 2017 fires in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, she could appreciate what Feist was going through.

Before moving to Williams Lake she was living in a camper at a campground when it started to become clear the promise of interim housing for evacuees was not going to materialize.

“There was no leadership coming from any level of government. Prime Minister Trudeau was talking about us in the past tense and it was clear we were going to be symbolic,” Feist said. “When you are a human being you don’t want to be a symbol.”

Feist said she considers herself one of the lucky ones because she had good insurance, good credit, family and friends, and she landed in a good spot by moving to Williams Lake.

Her best friend from Lytton moved to Midway because she and her partner have dogs and they were not going to find a rental.

“People are still displaced,” Feist said. “I cannot get regular answers on anything. I don’t understand why a year and a half later there is no movement.”

Feist lived in Lytton for six years and owned a little house on the corner of Fraser Street and Third. She imagined growing old there and enjoyed living in the community.

“My insurance coverage was adequate, but all the money that was announced by the federal government is contingent on building in a certain way. I would love to put solar panels on this house in Williams Lake, but I cannot afford to Fire-smart this entire house.”

Raising her arm to emphasize a point up high, she explained there are good and excellent ideas, but there is not a clear path to help residents to achieve those goals.

“No one is arguing the fact that we need to be fire safe, that we need to acknowledge that people are aging in place and acknowledge the climate crisis.”

The response to the Lytton fire has been inadequate and opaque, she added.

“They have forgotten there are people still living in motels.”

Urquhart said they cannot live in the Ashcroft home they are renting forever and if someone from the band needs it the agreement is that they will move out.

Their Lytton property was big enough that they could possibly rebuild, but at this point they have not decided whether they will rebuild or relocate.

Originally from Nova Scotia (N.S.), she moved to Lytton with Ross in 1974 when she was hired as a teacher for the school district.

At first she missed the farms of N.S. but within a couple of years they had settled and really appreciated the B.C. mountains.

She became attached to her teaching job and the students.

“Lytton became our community in our hearts.”

Before the fire she was the principal at Kumsheen Secondary in Lytton.

Their home was right downtown at 87 Main Street. A small house when they bought it, they added onto it over the years.

“That’s the way it was in Lytton. If a carpenter moved to town everybody would nag to get some work done on their home, or a roofer, you know,” she said.

Ross always had work too.

He arrived with a BA in commerce, then worked as a childcare worker and later for highways while obtaining a Master’s degree in political science. In April 2022 he was elected councillor in the Lytton by-election but did not run in the October general election.

On June 30, 2021 when it was apparent they had to leave because the fire was moving so quickly, Urquhart said they decided they’d drive away in their vehicles and meet at the Jade Springs Restaurant on the highway above the town.

She remembers people from the community staggering into the store looking for bottles of water in total shock.

As the fire progressed they kept moving east, stopping to regroup, and finally reached Cache Creek where they booked into the Bear’s Claw Lodge.

“We thought we would be there for a few days until the fire was out and then go home.”

With the devastation in Lytton meaning they could not return, they relocated to the Merritt area where she said the volunteers at the emergency services centre were amazing.

“They were there for us and the people coming from Highway 8.”

After staying in a few motels and Airbnbs they moved to Ashcroft on Oct. 5, 2021.

Since the fire they have gone back and forth to their property in Lytton a few times, to sift through the rubble to look for any valuables.

Anyone wanting to go into the community has to make an appointment.

It has been a ‘very slow’ process she said, adding it has taken a year and a half to settle out their insurance.

“You have to be proactive. We have been our own adjusters and soon realized that we cannot be reactive because it takes too much energy.”

In June 2022 the federal government announced $77 million in funding to help rebuild a fire-resistant and energy-efficient community.

Read More: Interlakes Volunteer Fire Department first responder program suspended

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Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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