How Does a Tiny Mountain Town, Burned to the Ground, Come Back?

Before the fire, Lytton, British Columbia, was the kind of tiny town visitors alighted upon mid-road trip, pulling off the Trans-Canada Highway to get a drink, or take in views of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, running slate gray and deep blue more than 200 feet below. A mile up the road, also known as Highway 1, Kumsheen Rafting Resort drew 8,000 visitors annually to take half-day trips on raging rapids. Backpackers heading out on the Stein Valley Traverse stopped at the grocery store — known to locals as Ken Mart, after its owner, Ken Wong — to pick up rope, ramen and fuel before they hit the trail.

Then, Lytton burned down in the space of an afternoon.

It was June 30, 2021, the day after the town’s — and Canada’s — hottest ever recorded temperature: 121 degrees Fahrenheit. Fire claimed Ken Mart (officially Jade Springs Grocery) and its Chinese restaurant, along with the Lytton Hotel with its restaurant and pub, the bank, the police station, the health clinic, and all but a handful of the more than 100 homes and businesses, along with a few dozen more along the highway and on the nearby Lytton First Nation.

The village grocery store in July 2021. Before the fire, the village had served as a hub for a much larger area.Credit…Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Two residents were killed in the blaze. Others evacuated to larger towns and cities like Vancouver, three hours away. Lytton joined Paradise and Greenville, Calif., along with Detroit, Ore., in a category that would come to include Lahaina, Hawaii: picturesque towns, loved by residents and travelers alike, destroyed by wildfire.

Kumsheen lost 1 million Canadian dollars ($740,000) in rafting equipment; nearly all its tent cabins went up in smoke, too. But when Andrew Fandrich, who runs the business with his parents, saw that the shop and office building remained standing, he thought, “We can still operate.” Their closest competitor, HYAK River Rafting, was destroyed completely — and uninsured.

Days after the fire, John Horgan, then the premier of British Columbia, promised to help Lytton become a model “in how we build a community for the future.” Pledges from the provincial and federal governments to clean up and rebuild public facilities and infrastructure soon ran to 115 million dollars — an outlay at a scale that will not be possible for every town damaged or destroyed by climate change.

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