The 500 block of Fraser Street, Lytton (back, right) seen from Main Street, July 9, 2021. (Photo credit: Barbara Roden)

It’s been 75 days, and Lytton residents are looking for answers

A Lytton resident speaks about frustration and concerns regarding the future of the town

By Denise O’Connor

It’s been 75 days since the fire that destroyed the town of Lytton, and I am writing this to express my continued concerns about the lack of leadership and lack of direction from the mayor and council since that devastating day.

I, like so many others, fled the fire and lost everything. I, like so many others, am very concerned for the future of Lytton.

On day 30, exactly one month after the event that changed our lives, I sent a letter to the Province, outlining concerns about the Village of Lytton mayor and council, and asking them to step in to support our elected officials. Within 24 hours, the letter was signed by over 60 individual residents, and 13 businesses/organizations, all of whom lived or worked in the village boundaries and had frustrations and concerns. Finally, on Aug. 20, I received a response from the Minister of Municipal Affairs that did not give us any reassurance. Since receipt of that letter, the following concerns have continued or arisen.

It’s been 75 days, and communication with the Village of Lytton continues to be practically non-existent. We have seen a slight improvement in their random updates on the Facebook page, the website, and the Voyent Alert app, but the majority of the information they are posting continues to be items such as reminders to register with Red Cross or to register for sifting. A number of friends and neighbours have emailed questions to the council; there has been minimal response and sometimes no response at all.

The public is welcome on the village’s Zoom council meetings, but the information shared is next to none. For example, nine line items of the Sept. 8 meeting agenda had “none” listed for the update. Aside from two surveys — one asking how donations should be distributed, the other a housing needs survey — we have never been asked to participate in any sort of consultation or town hall where the village can share information with us or ask us for input. Like me, many of my displaced friends and neighbours are dismayed that no one from the village has even once reached out to see how we are doing or if we have any immediate needs. Are we being ignored?

It’s been 75 days, and last week the Village of Lytton finally gave permission for Team Rubicon and Samaritan’s Purse to begin sifting. A few properties in the town have completed this process. Others, like me, are still waiting. It has been heartwarming to hear about some of the treasures that have been found in the ashes. It brings me a glimmer of hope that I may find something.

It’s been 75 days, and residents are not allowed on their own property. I have yet to see my property, other than in photos from the media. Residents can go in with the team of sifters, but they must stay off the property while Team Rubicon or Samaritan’s Purse does the work. On the news we watch as residents from the regional district or from Monte Lake go on their properties with no restrictions, and residents from the reserve go on with Team Rubicon to see the damage, gather up items that survived, or just to grieve, yet we are not allowed in.

I read that in Fort McMurray, residents went back two to three weeks after their fire. Apparently, because the Ministry of Environment was requested to come into our village and complete an assessment, we are under the strict rules of WorkSafe BC, which deems there are too many hazards. Why are “safety” standards for the village different from First Nations lands or the regional district? What is going on here?

It’s been 75 days, and we have not yet heard results of the environmental assessment. The Aug. 9 update states “The Village is still awaiting soil, air and water samples …from the Ministry of Environment, which will determine the safety protocols required for anyone to enter the site …” On Aug. 30 the following was released: “Preliminary Soil Sample Results have been received for the northern half of the Village of Lytton & IR 18. The results indicate significant levels of multiple carcinogens and other hazardous materials requiring specialized personal protective equipment and other exposure control measures. The results for the southern half of the Village of Lytton & IR17 are expected Aug. 20, 2021.” It is now Sept. 13. No other results have been made public. Where are the results? Why are they not shared? Is the village hiding something from us?

It’s been 75 days, and the village has yet to address the residents’ concerns over the Net Zero emissions bylaw that passed a first reading at the council meeting on Aug. 11. This 99-page bylaw was released to the public in the council meeting agenda just 24 hours before the meeting. Up until that point most of the village residents knew nothing about it. Mayor Polderman said at both the Aug. 5 and Sept. 8 council meetings that residents will have an opportunity to have their questions regarding Net Zero emissions answered by a panel of experts, yet as of Sept. 8 this panel of experts has not been confirmed.

John Horgan’s government wants to have all new builds in British Columbia to have net zero emissions by the year 2050. Our village council wants Lytton to be a model community, built to John Horgan’s standards, including a district energy system. Lytton residents have so many questions about this. Yes, we believe that we should rebuild to reflect lower emissions, but how can the village make such a proposal as the new Net Zero bylaw without any consultation with us?

It’s been 75 days, and our insurance adjusters have not been allowed onto our property to begin the process for calculating replacement costs. Mine has told me that never in their career have they ever had such restrictions put on them, nor has it taken this long. They still have no timeline when they will be allowed in. When will they be allowed in?

It’s been 75 days, and many insurance policies state that rebuild has a two-year window. In their latest update, the village shared that agencies may extend that, and if not, our only option is that we can file a legal action in court. We are already paying mortgages; our living-out dollars from insurance will not get extended. How will we be able to afford lawyers and rent?

It’s been 75 days, and the village has put a freeze on all building permit applications with no indication of when it will be lifted. Will this be months? Years?

It’s been 75 days, and we don’t yet know if we are expected to pay village taxes this year. They were due on July 30. At the “Village of Lytton Leadership and Policy for Recovery Select Committee Meeting” on Sept. 8, the committee (which is made up of the mayor and the three councillors) had a discussion about taxes. When the CAO said that options would be coming to council, Mayor Polderman was sure that the council had already passed a motion that the taxes for the year would be waived; others remembered differently. When will we hear?

It’s been 75 days, and at that same Sept. 8 special meeting the committee (mayor and council) engaged in a process, led by Community Recovery Manager Anne Yanciw, for brainstorming short-term goals to be presented at that evening’s council meeting. The goals, to be met in six months, included such things as interim housing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The council is developing short-term goals? Over two months after the fire?

It’s been 75 days, and since the fire, donations came to the village in the form of cash and gift cards. At the Aug. 11 council meeting the following motion was put forward for council to consider: “That Council approve the distribution of the gift cards and prepaid Visa cards to be determined on the basis of a draw for all Village of Lytton residents.” After some discussion the council “directed staff to post a notice on the website and Facebook pages asking residents to provide input on options for fairly distributing the Gift and Visa Cards …”

A survey was developed, and the results were shared at the Aug. 25 council meeting. It was reported that 129 people completed the survey, and 33 per cent opted for decision via committee, while 12 per cent opted for a randomized draw to distribute the donations. Although the council had asked for input from residents, a decision was made reflecting the original recommendation, Randomized Draw. A day or so after the meeting, a survey came out titled “Lytton Housing Needs Assessment”, and we were all shocked and disgusted that a draw for donations was attached to this survey! Fill out the survey, have your name put into the draw! After hearing from some residents, the village changed it to have the option of emailing the village to have your name entered. I hope that those who are not on social media, or don’t have email, like many of the elders in Lytton, will also have their names entered into the draw. I wonder if those who made donations expected that they would be used as a prize?

It’s been 75 days, and the village has just begun investigating options for interim housing. At the special council meeting on Sept. 8, it was stated that the interim housing project manager position is still vacant. Also at this meeting, Coun. Graie was adamant that there wasn’t a concern about interim housing because people had a choice of either a rental covered by insurance, or living in a hotel covered by Emergency Support Services. What she failed to mention is that residents are scattered all over B.C. and farther, and that interim housing could help bring them “home”. Is that too much to ask?

It’s been 75 days, and some residents have found temporary housing in various communities far from Lytton. Some have purchased homes rather than pay into rent. Many are considering not returning to Lytton. Some have no insurance, many have mortgages to pay. Our council has asked us to be patient. They have called us “muckrakers” for speaking out about frustrations. They have said we are being “nasty”, and we were told in a Village of Lytton news release on July 18 “…if you think you can do a better job, maybe you should have stepped up instead of treating like dirt the very people working to get you what you need to put your life back together.”

Seventy-five days, and there are still so many frustrations and concerns about how our village is being managed. With the way things are unfolding, many of us see no hope for the future of Lytton. People are angry, discouraged, disgusted, scared, and lost. Some are even talking about giving up and not returning to Lytton.

Denise O’Connor — formerly of 522 Fraser Street, Lytton — has lived in Lytton almost continuously since 1965. She is a former principal of Lytton Elementary School.

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