Canadian village burned to the ground in a future-proof climate fight

REVELSTOKE, British Columbia, Aug 5 (Reuters) – A year after a fire destroyed the village of Lytton in western Canada, British Columbia residents, municipal leaders and the government are grappling with the slow and costly reality of future-proof a community against climate change.

The remote village sits at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers in the high dry mountains of inland BC, making it a target for fires and landslides. In June 2021, 90% of Lytton’s facilities burned down, a day after the village recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada. Read more

Now officials have the unique opportunity to rebuild an entire community from scratch using fire-retardant materials and energy-efficient building standards.

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But long-term disaster mitigation plans and net-zero ambitions collide with the reality of human impatience and insurers’ reimbursement limits. The burnt residents, many still living in temporary housing, want to rebuild homes and get on with their lives.

“There is a distinct difference between what would be ideal and what is realistic,” said Tricia Thorpe, 61, who lost her home in the fire.

“I don’t think anyone has a problem with building fire extinguishers, but they’re trying to build a model village. They’re talking about solar sidewalks (panels).”

As climate change intensifies, the risk of destructive weather conditions is increasing, spurring attention to how communities are built.

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), insured damage from severe weather events across Canada reached $ 2.1 billion ($ 1.63 billion), including CAD $ 102 million for the fire of Lytton. Since 1983, Canadian insurers have averaged approximately C $ 934 million annually in severe weather-related losses.

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The dispute over how to restore Lytton highlights the messy reality of climate adaptation and what costs and delays people are willing to endure to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate fire risk.

In the village of 300, some lofty ambitions have already been set aside in favor of faster reconstruction.

Lytton’s council wanted to enact building regulations that required net-zero emissions homes, but scaled it down to lower energy efficiency standards after residents turned it down.

The village also considered burying all of its power lines to reduce the risk of fire, a three-year process, but is now installing temporary overhead lines instead to get the job done in nine months.

“Sometimes, I am frustrated by the lack of knowledge and the fact that the residents think we are trying to make their reconstruction impossible,” said Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman.

“We could become a first-generation model for net zero.”

Polderman said solar panel sidewalks – reinforced solar panels instead of sidewalks on city sidewalks – and wind power could power street lights and municipal buildings.

BREAKDOWN OF A NEW TERRITORY

In the 13 months following the fire, little progress was made in the restoration, with only a quarter of the properties cleared of ash and debris.

The local council is still finalizing fire building regulations which, according to them, will be the most comprehensive ever developed in Canada and will make Lytton the best protected community in the country.

The new statute, based on the Canadian National Research Council’s experience on community development in fire-prone regions, covers everything from building materials, landscaping and maintenance, to what can be stored on properties.

The finalization of the statute and the consultation of the community took months.

“I’m sure if we had said ‘Let’s get people back to their homes ASAP’ it would have been quicker, but then we could find ourselves in the same situation in a few years,” said Kelsey Winter, chair of the BC FireSmart Committee, a provincial organization. which drives community engagement in Lytton.

“It takes longer than many people wanted, but Lytton is breaking new ground.”

Other complications dogged the recovery. Record-breaking floods in November wiped out local highways, which were also closed intermittently during the winter for avalanche control.

Furthermore, the village is located within the territory of the First Nation of Nlaka’pamux and the residents require archaeological investigations to verify the presence of indigenous artifacts before reconstruction. Lytton First Nation, part of Nlaka’pamux, also lost dozens of homes in the 2021 fire.

LIMITS OF INSURANCE

About 60% of Lytton residents were uninsured or underinsured, which led to delays in debris removal as residents and insurers were grappling with who would have to pay. In March, the province said it would provide CAD $ 18.4 million to cover debris removal, archaeological investigations and land reclamation.

Meanwhile, residents are running out of time as temporary living allowances provided by insurers, typically for 18-24 months after a disaster, are running out. Adding to the challenges, insurers are reluctant to pay for the upgrades to homes that are written into the new building regulations.

“Insurance puts the building back in place, not the building you want,” said Aaron Sutherland, vice president of the Pacific region for the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

The Canadian Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), which helped develop Lytton’s fire safety regulations, estimates that their implementation would add approximately C $ 5,000 to rebuilding costs.

Sutherland said that while insurers see the benefits of fire resilience, upgrades to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions will add “tens of thousands” of dollars per home.

“When people took out insurance policies, they were based on the statute of the day and what the insurers expected to pay,” he added.

Building emissions account for 13% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas production, and reducing them is a key part of the Canadian government’s climate goals.

Ottawa will help make up part of the deficit by providing C $ 6 million to homeowners with basic rebuilding insurance who wish to rebuild zero-emission or fire-resistant homes.

Meanwhile, Lytton is facing yet another season of fires. On July 14, a fire broke out across the river from Lytton, destroying at least six properties.

Last year, 1,642 fires burned 869,279 hectares (2.1 million acres) in BC, an above 2010-2020 average of 1,352 fires and 348,917 hectares burned.

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Some homeowners have had enough of delays. Tricia Thorpe, who lives just outside the village border, is rebuilding without building permits and others are moving elsewhere.

“I don’t expect to ever rebuild, even if my intention was to do it,” said retired nurse Michele Feist, 59, whose 100-year-old bright yellow house has burned down. “The answer was inadequate on all levels. I’m not a bitter person and I try to be realistic about things, but I miss my city.”

($ 1 = 1.2856 Canadian dollars)

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Reporting by Nia Williams in British Columbia Editing by Marguerita Choy

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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