[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: The heat wave that ravaged British Columbia ended about a week ago. And since then we’ve seen the predictable results.
News Clip: Right now there are more than 170 active fires in BC, 80 new ones in just the last two days.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It is hard to imagine the scale of hundreds of fires burning at once, so maybe think of just one. Think of the one that hit the town that twice set the new record for highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. That town is now mostly gone.
News Clip: The monster known as the Lytton Creek wildfire climbs mountains, moves quickly, and leaves a trail of devastation.
News Clip 2: What happened to Lytton on Wednesday night? Flames moved in fast and burned much of the village to the ground in minutes.
News Clip 3: There was nothing left downtown. There was maybe three houses standing up now.
News Clip 4: It’s not like we can go back to Lytton and resume life.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Lytton, BC, was the hottest place in Canada. Even before the heat wave it advertised [00:01:00] itself as Canada’s hotspot. And now it’s been burned to the ground. To make things worse, BC’s public safety minister has admitted that there were gaps in emergency communication with some of the Lytton First Nation.
So what does the aftermath of a heat wave and a forest fire look like? What does it look like to the people who have still not gotten a firsthand look at what remains of their homes and town? What does it look like to the First Nation leaders who are calling on the government to be accountable for what happened and when. And what does it look like for the government who is now making a lot of promises-
News Clip: When the smoke clears in Lytton, of course the province will be there to rebuild.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: But doesn’t really have the trust of the people it’s making them to? Finally, what does rebuilding a town ravaged by a forest fire look like right now in the hottest place in Canada with the worst of climate change and more forest fires [00:02:00] still to come?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Monika Gul is a reporter with CityNews and with News 1130 in Vancouver. She has been covering the heat wave, the fire, and the aftermath. Hi Monika.
Monika Gul: Hi there. How’s it going?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s going okay. Why don’t you take me back, I guess, about a week ago? Uh, we last covered British Columbia, we talked to a climate scientist about the incredible record breaking heat, and she said, it’s not the heat, it’s what likely comes after that. And here we are. Why don’t you tell me what’s been going on in BC since then?
Monika Gul: Yeah, well, I mean we’ve seen a lot of wildfires in the province in the last week or so, the most notable one is the one that has pretty much destroyed most of Lytton, uh, which is a smaller village here in BC. [00:03:00] And this fire broke out a day after the village set the record for the hottest day ever recorded in Canada. It hit 49.5 degrees Celsius. And so obviously, very dry conditions in the village. Uh, very windy when this, uh, fire broke out and, uh, it essentially spread very fast through the village. People had 10, 15 minutes to get out. Uh, some people leaving with the clothes on their back. Um, so, uh, been definitely a tough time for many people here in BC.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Have they managed to figure out what started the fire and why it spread so quickly?
Monika Gul: Well, definitely one of the reasons it’s spread so quickly was that wind that I mentioned, windy conditions are never good when we hear that in the forecast during the summer. And when we know that we are in wildfire season here in BC, uh, it’s always a little dangerous because the winds will just kind of blow and fan the flame, [00:04:00] sometimes into areas that it hasn’t burned yet. And that appears to be sort of what happened here with the fire in Lytton, it was pretty windy when the fire broke out.
In terms of what caused it. I mean, um, there is an investigation, uh, that has begun. RCMP, uh, the BC Wildfire Service are involved in that. Uh, they are pretty tight-lipped for now other than BC wildfire service, uh, confirming that it believes the fire was human caused. Now that could mean a whole range of things, human caused essentially just means that it wasn’t a thunder storm, a lightning strike that caused or sparked the fire.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Monika Gul: Uh, there’s been quite a bit of speculation on social media and among people in Lytton that a train that was going through might’ve sparked this fire. Obviously with the investigation going, uh, we don’t know that for sure yet, but yeah, until that investigation is complete, [00:05:00] uh, we won’t, I don’t think, have a definitive answer as to what sparked the fire.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So the fire gets sparked, however it starts, as you mentioned, because of the wind and it’s dry, uh, it spreads like crazy. What happens to the people of Lytton? They’re running out of there, as you mentioned with the clothes on their backs, um, where do they go? Did they all make it? Where are they now?
Monika Gul: We do know, unfortunately, two people didn’t make it out of Lytton when the fire broke out, uh, the BC Coroner Service discovered their bodies over the weekend when they were finally able to get into the village. For the rest of the people of Lytton, it does seem that most of them did get out. Um, the population of Lytton, the village of Lytton is about 250. Um, however, there are hundreds of others who live in the area on First Nations reserves. And so about a thousand people, more than a thousand people were forced out of the area when this fire broke out.
Lytton is, um, sort of a rural area. There [00:06:00] aren’t a lot of towns, uh, super close. So the nearest ones are about an hour or two hour drive. So, uh, people just headed to a whichever direction they could on the main highway, highway one through Lytton, they essentially headed either north or south whichever way they could escape. And, um, many of these people are now in the towns that are closest to Lytton, so that includes Lillooet, Merritt, Chilliwack many people are displaced. Um, they’ve kind of scattered all throughout the region. Uh, there are stories of families, friends being separated, just because of the way the fire broke out, wherever people were.
Um, so many people are now just trying to slowly, uh, process what has happened and slowly put their lives back together. People talking about getting medication cause they left without their medication. Um, many people don’t have their IDs, other important documents. Um, so yeah, many of these folks are just, uh, scattered throughout the region and just, um, solely trying to [00:07:00] figure out where to go to from here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You went up to Merritt to talk to some of them, I guess, what is the sentiment up there about first of all, what’s happened to their town, but also. Like maybe about climate change in general and what brought these crazy record-breaking temperatures. And like, that’s got to shake you living in a town when something like that happens.
Monika Gul: Yeah. Climate change definitely came up in conversations that I had with, uh, people who were forced out of Lytton. Um, yeah, there’s no doubt that many think, um, climate change was definitely a contributing factor to what’s happened, especially with that heatwave, as you say, you know, earlier last week before the fire broke out, Lytton was already making headlines around the world, even, for setting these records for being the hottest place in Canada. I know the mayor, I actually spoke to him the morning of the fire before the fire broke out. And he said he was getting calls practically every 15 minutes, many times for media looking to talk to him [00:08:00] about the fact that his town was setting these records and the hottest place in Canada. And there was almost, I don’t want to say a lightheartedness to it, but there was this sort of, you know, breaking records. You know, we, we, we talk about it all the time and there is this, um, you know, sort of lightness to it sometimes, but it very much drastically changed later that day when that fire broke out, it was no longer, you know, uh, oh, just this hot record that was set, it was just completely life-changing. You know, it started off with just this heatwave setting new record after record day by day. And then all of a sudden this fire just came out of nowhere and completely changed the story, completely, I think for many, it is this, um, you’re forced to face this reality that this could be a consequence of these record breaking hot temperatures.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What are they saying? Or what are officials in the town saying I guess about the government’s response, both in terms of immediately in the emergency and now in the aftermath?
Monika Gul: Yeah, [00:09:00] there’s been quite a bit of chatter about that, especially from some of the First Nations groups in the area. Some Chiefs have come out and said that they felt they were not getting any support or help from the government. Uh, one Chief has said that he wasn’t really contacted by government officials until I think it was something like 16 hours later. And it was to talk about livestock and the animals, not about how his people were doing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Monika Gul: Uh, one person I spoke to who was evacuated, uh, said it was very, um, mismanaged the evacuation, you know, people were driving to one area because they were told to go to that area. And then they got there and RCMP, you know, had a road closed and told them, no, you’re actually headed this way. So, you know, some of that may be understandable, obviously when an emergency breaks out, that’s as sudden and short notice as this one, uh, some miscommunication is to be expected. But, uh, some people are solely criticizing a [00:10:00] bit of the handling of some, some of the communications. And I think we’ll be hearing more and more of that as time goes on, especially when they, uh, start hopefully receiving some more support. Many evacuees have been encouraged to, uh, register obviously with emergency operation centers. And, uh, part of that, uh, benefit of that is to be able to get some, um, you know, financial help for them, other sort of support. So it’ll, uh, we’ll see how that sort of plays out in the days and weeks ahead.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What has the BC government said? Um, I guess, first of all, maybe in response to that criticism, but mostly in terms of what they’re going to do next with, uh, a town that I guess is mostly destroyed and a thousand people displaced?
Monika Gul: The province has acknowledged that, uh, it could have handled communications and other things better. Um, when it comes [00:11:00] to sort of where we go from here, including potentially rebuilding, uh, the village of Lytton, which yeah, 90% of it, uh, has been destroyed by this fire. You know, John Horgan, the premier here, uh, one of the first news conferences after the fire did hint at a rebuild. And I know other politicians have talked about getting, um, Lytton back up and running, so to speak. But I think, uh, it’s a little too soon to say, I think for many evacuees you know, they’re just still wrapping their head around what’s happened and many are still sorting out just the very essential basics, like where they’re going to be living tonight, um, where they’re going to be staying the next week. It’ll take some more time before we really, um, hear more talk about a full-on rebuild, what that’ll look like, uh, how, you know, who’s going to pay for it, all that kind of stuff. I think, um, yeah, it remains to be seen.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Have the people of [00:12:00] Lytton been able to go back, see what survived? Uh, I gathered not a lot of the buildings did, but you know, the stuff you mentioned, medication passports, uh, family heirlooms, etcetera.
Monika Gul: So far, uh, people have not been able to go in. It’s been, uh, unsafe. Um, of course this fire, a reminder, is still burning. And, um, you know, at . Least 40 firefighters are battling it every single day with several helicopters, uh, helping, uh, from the sky. But, um, there are plans in the works to get a tour bus for evacuees. Uh, it’s set to happen on Friday. And the plan is they’ve I think been able to kind of carve out some sort of route through the community. And, uh, the idea is that people will be able to see the damage firsthand. Um, I believe the plan is to have them stay in the bus. No one will be able to actually get out of the bus to see it very close, but, um, at least it’ll give people a better sense of really what has happened to [00:13:00] their community.
Um, and I think a lot of them do already know. I mean, some of the people who evacuated left as they saw the flames on their house, they saw their own home on fire. Um, they were seeing other buildings on fire and, um, just some heartbreaking pictures and videos have emerged on social media, uh, showing neighbourhoods just completely burned down, leveled, torched cars in the area. Um, there’s a picture that’s really been circulating, showing the sort of downtown, so to speak, the main street, a before and after shot. And you know, the, before you see, you know, a nice street with buildings and everything and, um, the after shot, it’s just all gone. It’s just, uh, ash, char, uh, black, black buildings, you know, barely buildings. Um, that’s that pretty much remains. So, um, yeah, people will be able to get a chance to get a better look with their own eyes on Friday. But, [00:14:00] um, I think many are already sort of know what awaits them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I don’t expect you to have, um, an answer journalistically for this next question, but it’s something that really fascinates me in a, in a slightly dark way. You know, when we talk about rebuilding this town, this town, which was already, you know, billing itself as Canada’s hotspot, as the hottest place in Canada has now broken all temperature records. And we’re starting wildfire season and wildfire seasons are getting worse. Like, is this one of those things where like, how can you actually rebuild this town here without risking this happening again next year? The year after?
Monika Gul: Yeah, I think that’s something many people are wondering, and it’s not just even in that area. You know, I’m in Vancouver, which is, you know, hundreds of kilometers away from Lytton and from where many of these wildfires happen and more and more, it feels like our summers, we go through streaks where it’s pretty smoky because of the smoke that’s coming from those wildfires. Um, so I think, uh, [00:15:00] there are these constant reminders of, uh, you know, the reality we’re facing and just how some areas in BC and BC’s interior are prone to wildfires. So. You know, any sort of rebuild we’ll have to take into account the reality of where Lytton is located and how close some forests are. Um, you know, the sad part is I’m sure many are also now burned, so maybe that wildfire risk, uh, is reduced in a hypothetical rebuild.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Huh.
Monika Gul: Yeah. And I, and I’m sure some people might not even come back. You know, I think, um, with many tragedies we sometimes see people are forced out of their homes and, you know, they’re forced to sort of, um, get back on their feet somewhere else. And sometimes people don’t come back because they’ve established, you know, a new life somewhere else, you know, it is possible. And I think there are some people who are determined to make it happen. Um, but I think a lot of, uh, things will need to be taken into account.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: The last thing I want to ask you, uh, is kind of, I left it til the [00:16:00] end, cause it’s kind of a reporter nerd question. Um, but you mentioned earlier that when you see, you know, record breaking temperatures, that sometimes that kind of stuff can be light. And like, I was a reporter for quite some time and we all, everybody who’s been a reporter knows about like writing the weather story, right. Like it’s almost a joke like, oh, it’s going to be so cold or so hot. Um, and you pull the numbers and you ask people about it and ha ha there’s your record breaking story. You know, radio stations do weather challenges, right? Like we’ll we break the all time high. And it feels really strange to me to be having these conversations. Um, and, and kind of doing those stories when you’re looking at those numbers and like, they feel apocalyptic to look at, and yet there’s still this like, well, we gotta do the weather story. Um, how do you feel about that?
Monika Gul: Yeah. Um, it’s, I think we’re kind of reaching these temperatures that, you know, it’s really not light anymore. I mean, 49.5 is just really hard to fathom and. You know, initially, uh, when it Lytton [00:17:00] broke an earlier record a few days before that, I think it was sort of mid forties. Uh, so, you know, it was kind of like, all right, you know, we’re getting into hot territory, crazy, but yeah, once you kind of hit that 49.5, I think, you know, there is that seriousness to it, you know, that’s, you know, it’s crazy to imagine. And that’s sort of, life-threatening, temperature’s really, I mean, here in Vancouver, uh, we had a heatwave and we’re we’re learning that seniors who lived alone without air conditioning passed away because of that. So I think, um, it’s a big wake up call that, you know, hot temperature is a really no joke, especially when we’re reaching these temperatures that are record-breaking, is just a wake up call almost. Yeah, it’s no joke.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Monika, thanks so much for your reporting on this and sharing it with us.
Monika Gul: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Monika Gul of CityNews and News 1130. That was The Big Story, for more from us, including the episode I mentioned about the [00:18:00] heatwave, you can go to thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. And you can email us thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase or all uppercase doesn’t really matter, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. Find us in your favourite podcast player, like us, follow us, subscribe to us, whatever your favourite podcast player wants you to do. And remember if you really like this podcast, tell a friend, that’s how we grow.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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