Denise O’Connor, current and newly elected Mayor of Lytton stands in front of her former house site. O’Connor lost her home in the 2021 wildfires that destroyed the town. (Photograph by Alana Paterson, Washington Post)

Topics: Ethical Living | December 2023, Environment

How Lytton, B.C., is preserving its history after a devastating wildfire

Residents are protecting Indigenous, Chinese and settler artifacts as they prepare to rebuild


Two years and four days after wildfire incinerated most of Lytton, a village in the Fraser Canyon of British Columbia, I drove into its barren downtown. The breath caught in my throat. So little was left that I looked around, wondering if I’d driven right past. The area was free of debris, but what remained was mainly construction fences, imprints of buildings and a scattering of small flowers bursting out of the dirt.

The air smelled dusty and dry. Scorched trees rose up from the great Thompson and Fraser Rivers, a clear reminder of the fire that had razed the area.

The remains of downtown Lytton, B.C., perched on a bluff at the confluence of two rivers (Photograph by Alana Paterson, Washington Post)

The devastation unfolded within minutes. Temperatures in Lytton hit 49.6 C the day before the fire, still the hottest reading ever recorded in Canada. The next day, on June 30, 2021, wildfire swept through the area and nearby Lytton First Nation reserves, destroying 90 percent of the village. Two died. Two years on and tens of millions of dollars later, the rebuilding is just beginning.

The fire made international headlines, foreshadowing the deadly wildfires that have horrified people in the years since, all fuelled by climate disruption. Enterprise, N.W.T., West Kelowna, B.C., and Maui, to name just a few, are all going to face the mammoth task of rebuilding.

But not just lives, livelihoods, houses and businesses can be lost to fire. History can be lost, too, and with it, memory. The village of Lytton was home to three remarkable historical collections of artifacts, all destroyed by the fire. Each told the story of one of its three strands of cultural history: Indigenous, settler and Chinese. Each is being reassembled by people passionate about making sure the village’s long history remains alive and can be preserved for the future, even as fire remains a regular threat.

Driving into town that day, I wanted to know why. Why does history matter so much? Who are the people risking so much to preserve the history of this small, vulnerable piece of the planet?

John Haugen is an elected councillor and knowledge keeper from the Lytton First Nation, the largest Nlaka’pamux band. I met him in the parish hall on the north end of Lytton — one of the few buildings in the village’s centre that survived the 2021 fire. The hall had hydroelectricity hooked up to it earlier this year and was slowly becoming a meeting place.

In the fire, Haugen lost a collection of 200 baskets handmade by Nlaka’pamux basket makers. He had built up the collection with his mother, who started assembling them in the early 1950s. Haugen was living in his childhood home at the time of the fire, and when the house burned so did the baskets.

Collections of cultural artifacts have fascinated humans for many thousands of years. They’re a means of preserving stories that would otherwise be lost, told through objects that have somehow, sometimes miraculously, escaped eradication.

So it was with Haugen’s baskets. Often made from western red cedar root, cherry bark and grasses, the baskets told part of the long history of the Nlaka’pamux people in the place that’s now called Lytton. Nlaka’pamux people have gathered at the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser rivers for thousands of years — it’s said to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America. They call it Camchin or Kumsheen, roughly translated to “the great fork” or “where the rivers meet.”

The baskets helped the community survive: their ingenious trapezoid shapes allowed huckleberries to be transported without crushing. They were also traded to other Indigenous Peoples and sold to settlers. Each can take two months or more of intensive work to create.

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But baskets are not the only part of the archeological record of this area: jade celts, or blades, from the region have ended up in museums all over the world.

Paradoxically, the fire allowed Haugen and his community to reclaim even more of their history. The entire village site and some of the First Nation’s land have undergone extensive archeological excavation to ensure no artifacts would be bulldozed inadvertently during the rebuilding. The work uncovered an ancestral burial ground in the village, something the community suspected was there.

“Especially in one lot, there were early indications from a historical map that there would have been a burial parcel under where they built a home,” Haugen says.

The First Nation has also been able to document some of the items buried with their ancestors, giving new insight into traditional practices.

“We have carved artifacts and copper grave goods, and people always didn’t understand that,” Haugen says. “The people here were doing carvings. People often attribute that to many more coastal groups. But we were doing that here as part of our grave decorations.”

Community members also became more aware of burial practices — specifically that their ancestors were placed in a seated position to make the burials more compact because people didn’t have access to metal shovels. The grave findings have prompted discussions within the community about conducting DNA work if human bones and teeth are found in the graves, so people might be able to connect modern individuals with their ancestors. “It’s almost like these sites kind of reveal themselves for a reason,” Haugen says.

A marker declaring Lytton the hottest place in Canada. (Photograph by Alana Paterson, Washington Post)

It wasn’t the first time Lytton has dealt with fire. Nicknamed “Canada’s hotspot,” the village has nearly burned down at least four times in the last century. Fire is a normal part of life in the area; small fires erupt frequently. But what happened in 2021 was different. A research study at Columbia University published last year in Nature Climate Change pinned blame squarely on climate change for the heat dome that fostered the conditions for the fire. It seems plain that Lytton’s future will be shaped by fire as the climate becomes more disordered.

This past summer was Canada’s worst wildfire season on record, and it just kept getting worse as the weeks wore on. Fires burned out of control in Quebec all summer, and thousands of people were evacuated from Yellowknife in August as a massive fire encroached on the city. That same month, B.C. Premier David Eby declared a state of emergency as hundreds of fires burned around the province, including just north and just south of Lytton.

Even two years after the burn, when I arrived in Lytton, construction in the village hadn’t started. The area felt remarkably remote in a way it wasn’t always. While home to just over 200, Lytton was a regional hub. About 2,500 people in the surrounding area depended on it. It had a bank, a medical centre, grocery stores, restaurants, two museums and hotels.

“Those stories of Lytton and the different buildings and the things that happened on those streets and in the buildings — those stories are gone,” says Denise O’Connor, who lost her home in the fire and was elected mayor the following year. “They’re still in our minds but they’re gone in that the physical reference to them is gone.”

Denise O’Connor, current and newly elected Mayor of Lytton stands in front of her former house site. O’Connor lost her home in the 2021 wildfires that destroyed the town. (Photograph by Alana Paterson, Washington Post)

O’Connor used to think Lytton would be rebuilt and everything would be the same. “I thought that for months after the fire. Maybe that’s the trauma of the fire, I don’t know,” she says. While some businesses are coming back to the surrounding region, “the reality is, very little is the same,” she adds.

Clearing debris and removing toxins from the soil took a couple of years. The painstaking archeological investigation is still nearing completion. The fact that all physical village records and their backups were destroyed in the fire slowed the bureaucratic process.

Meanwhile, the village has pieced together $140 million from the provincial and federal governments for recovery and rebuilding, with some funding earmarked to make public buildings, businesses and homes more fire-resistant.

Early on, the village council considered taking the government’s rebuilding codes a step further by requiring carbon-neutral (or net-zero) buildings and a higher standard for fire resistance. But that idea was shelved due to pushback from residents worried about the cost and the possibility of delay. In late July, the council agreed to simply encourage everyone to rebuild to higher standards. “Fire resilience is really important, but we also have to make it so that it’s manageable for residents to rebuild,” O’Connor says.

Richard Forrest is big on history, something you would expect of someone who is chair of the Lytton Museum and Archives Commission. I wanted to speak with him about the settler story the museum told, so we drove to the village centre to see where it had been.

I had already researched some of the story. It begins with the visit explorer and fur trader Simon Fraser made here in 1808, but it takes off in the 1850s when the Hudson’s Bay Company briefly operated a fort near Lytton.

In 1858, Governor James Douglas named the village after Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the originator of the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” By then, Lytton had become a stop for those seeking their fortune during the Gold Rush. Richard Charles Mayne, a British explorer and politician, wrote in his 1862 book that Lytton was “an irregular row of some dozen wooden huts, a drinking saloon, an express office, a large court-house — as yet unfinished — and two little buildings near the river, which had once belonged to the [Hudson’s Bay Company].”

Forrest and I parked on Fraser Street and walked down the gravel road to the former site of the Lytton Museum and Archives. All that remained was a collection of items grouped together on a mound of dirt. A silver bell stood out in the pile.

Forrest winced slightly when I asked about the bell. It was from St. George’s residential school for Indigenous children and was used to call students in. Like so many residential schools, this one has a horrific history. Opened in 1901, it was run by the New England Company, a missionary organization connected to the Church of England. According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, the school had sanitation, fire and overcrowding problems. It closed in 1979. In 1993, an employee pleaded guilty to sexually abusing students.

But that’s in part what the museum did: it told the story of settler history in Lytton, both the good and the ugly. Nearly all artifacts in the museum were destroyed in the fire.

The museum was based in a foreman’s house built by the Canadian National Railway in 1942 and later sold to the village of Lytton. It held 1,270 items, from railway artifacts like old work tools to a radio that belonged to a previous mayor who had inherited it from his father. The museum also contained photographs, family archives, some ancient ammonite fossils and other local oddities. One was a kettle that sat on the mantle of the Copper Kettle Restaurant in Lytton before it burned in a fire in the 1970s.

A few stone tools several thousand years old from the village museum survived the fire. (Photograph by Alana Paterson, Washington Post)

Forrest backed up photographs, descriptions and accession information of nearly everything in the museum on his personal server in 2019, so the museum has a record of everything it held. That helped with insurance claims, Forrest says, but doesn’t help with replacing the objects.

“The value of an artifact in a museum isn’t really the monetary value. It’s the provenance. And what we lost is all of that which is really the essence of the museum,” Forrest says. “You can’t just go out and buy more artifacts.”

After we viewed the museum site, I followed Forrest through a valley of scorched trees toward his home, which survived the fire. In his basement, artifacts are lined up on the floor, some recovered from the fire and some acquired since.

He showed me a gold scale tinged by flames. The scale was previously displayed in the museum with tiny weights and a record of all the gold that was transferred from the miner to the stores
that bought the gold, a magnificent record of the Gold Rush in the area. All burned.

I met up with with Lorna Fandrich just an hour or so after speaking with Forrest. We went to the site of the Chinese History Museum she built in the village centre. All that was left were some waist-high stone walls and small shards of glass from display cabinets that once held artifacts in the building.

The fact that the museum had been there at all was a mix of serendipity and dedication. When Fandrich and her husband bought the plot of land in 1980, it was empty. Shortly after, she happened upon a newspaper article from the 1930s that referred to a joss house, or Chinese temple, that had been on the site. She discovered that it had been one of the first joss houses in British Columbia. It honoured deities including, ironically, Zhu Rong, the god of fire in Chinese mythology. It also served as a guest house and community meeting space for Chinese people who settled in Lytton, or passed through, during the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

It was a refuge for Chinese people amid the discrimination they faced in Canada. Chinese people began arriving in British Columbia during the Gold Rush. About 6,500 Chinese men worked on the B.C. railway in the 1880s; they were paid significantly less than white workers and assigned the most difficult and dangerous jobs. Beginning in 1885, they also had to pay a head tax to enter the country.

But the temple was sold in 1928, and the building repurposed for agricultural uses. Notices posted in Vancouver’s Chinatown, more than 250 kilometres away, lamented the loss of the temple, and the consul general of the Republic of China in Vancouver protested the sale.

When Fandrich learned of the history, she got the land registered as a historic site and rebuilt the temple to house a local Chinese history museum. The museum opened in 2017 with artifacts from rail sites, pots and boxes, medicine bottles and tools. The Chong family, who lived in Lytton from the late 1800s until the early 2000s, donated letters, receipts, photos and more to the museum. It was the first museum in Canada fully dedicated to telling the history of Chinese people in this country.

A tea box and bottle were on loan to a museum in Vancouver. (Photograph by Alana Paterson, Washington Post)

Only 200 items from the museum’s 1,600-piece collection survived the fire, of which only 40 are in good shape. Fandrich is resolute that she must rebuild a new replica of the joss house. She wants to make sure that the discrimination Chinese people faced in Lytton and their contributions to the place aren’t forgotten.

Fandrich, who is not Chinese, says she started the museum out of personal interest in the history. She says it’s now become much more. So many people have donated money, and they have faith that she will complete the project. She also believes that re- building the museum is important to help revitalize Lytton’s village centre. “I didn’t want to bail on the community,” she says. “I think that story [of Chinese people in Lytton] still needs to be told.”

People from the Lytton community and beyond have rallied to support each of the three museum collections, determined that the stories they tell, already so fragile, must be told once more. In July, Haugen, Forrest and Fandrich jointly won the British Columbia Historical Federation’s Cultural Resource Accessibility Award for their rebuilding efforts.

Fandrich has assembled more than 500 items. Most of them are not from Lytton but are similar to what would have existed in Chinese rail and mining camps in the area. She has also received $150,000 in donations from history societies and Chinese groups to help her rebuild. She hopes to have her museum in place by the spring.

A member of the BC Heri- tage Emergency Response Network examines items rescued from Lytton’s Chinese History Museum in 2021. (Photograph by Alana Paterson, Washington Post)

Donations have also rolled in for the Lytton First Nation and the Lytton Museum and Archives. Museums in Pemberton and Smithers, two other B.C. communities, have offered baskets to the First Nation. People from across the Lower Mainland and as far away as California donated baskets from their personal collections. Five or six have arrived so far and more will come when Haugen has a place to properly store them.

He dreams of the day when the Lytton First Nation will have its own museum, one that will help young people connect to their past. “We have to make sure young people are involved …[and] acquire a passion for their long history and their cultural artifacts,” he says.

The physical future of the Lytton Museum is still in question. Mayor O’Connor says the council is deciding what village buildings will be rebuilt and whether some should be combined. Forrest thinks the museum in Lytton should be rebuilt larger because it tells Lytton’s history. “Knowing why we got here might give you a hint in how to move on,” Forrest says.

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Digitization is also part of the way forward. The Chinese History Museum database Fandrich and Forrest built together has become “hugely important” in the rebuilding process, Fandrich says. Forrest is exploring the use of 3-D models of artifacts to ensure detailed digital replicas could be made if the originals are lost in the future.

“It’s so important to digitize things now, because this fire or flooding, or whatever, could happen anywhere again and could happen soon,” Fandrich says. “If you have the database, you also haven’t lost the history.”

As for the village itself, rebuilding was finally set to start later this fall. In late July, I spoke by phone with Mike Blaschuk, one of Lytton’s project recovery managers. He was watching the last of the contaminated soil being taken off the village site. The next step was filling the ditches with clean soil. After that, property owners who had received all the necessary reports and permits could begin building.

Workers sift dirt for debris in November 2022. A metre of soil had to be removed from much of the town because of contamination from the fire. (Photograph by Alana Paterson, Washington Post)

Frustrations are mounting. In October, Lytton resident staged a rally to protest delays in rebuilding, including the roadblocks posed by archeological work. Property owners are worried they could be facing thousands of dollars in archeological monitoring costs, an expense not covered by insruance.

Attempts to make Lytton more fire-proof are ongoing. The federal government opened a $6-million program this past May to provide top-up grants to homeowners who want to build their primary homes to fire-resilient or fire-resistant and net-zero standards. However, the grant program generally requires people to build the homes first and apply for rebates after, a significant financial outlay in a place where so many have lost so much. About two-thirds of homeowners lacked insurance, and the village is talking with Mennonite Disaster Relief and other groups about helping them to rebuild.

But fire still haunts this place. I ask Forrest what his worries are for the future of Lytton. He says: “Everything.” Even now, he sometimes wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and looks outside to make sure there’s no fire.

As I drove out of Lytton, I thought about all the ways we can lose history. It’s not just to wildfire. Loss is also the repression of certain histories in favour of others. Artifacts and collections like Haugen’s and Fandrich’s fight against that.

Through the designs and shapes of baskets, Haugen teaches youth about the history of the Nla- ka’pamux people, right near the site of a former residential school that attempted to erase that history. Through rebuilding a historic joss house, Fandrich resurrected a physical history that was destroyed a century ago. She’ll now bring it back to life again.

A scene stuck in my head. On my second day in Lytton, when Forrest and I were driving north of the village to his house, we stopped in a valley. The left side was full of scorched trees, making the landscape look even more dry and cracked. We pulled off the road and he pointed to a clump of trees. They had survived the 2014 fire and then the 2021 fire, too. For about a metre and a half up, they were black and charred. But at the top, green needles emerged. Regrowth after near destruction. The story of Lytton.


Charlotte Alden was Broadview’s summer intern. She is currently a reporter for Cascadia Daily News in Bellingham, Wash.

This article first appeared in Broadview’s December 2023 issue with the title “After the Fire.”

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