A Canadian village razed by a forest fire fights to protect its future against the climate

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

The remote village sits at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson rivers in the high, dry mountains of interior British Columbia, making it a target for fires and landslides. In June 2021, 90% of Lytton’s structures burned down, a day after the village recorded the hottest temperature on record in Canada. Read more

Now, managers have a unique opportunity to rebuild an entire community from the ground up using fire-resistant materials and energy-efficient building standards.

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But long-term disaster mitigation plans and net-zero ambitions come up against the realities of human impatience and insurer reimbursement limits. Exhausted residents, many of whom still live in temporary accommodation, want to rebuild homes and move on with their lives.

“There is a clear 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 smart fireproof construction, 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 increases, prompting a focus on how communities are built.

Insured severe weather damage in Canada reached C$2.1 billion ($1.63 billion) last year, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), including C$102 million for the Lytton fire. Since 1983, Canadian insurers have averaged approximately C$934 million per year in weather-related losses.

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

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

Lytton Council wanted to pass building regulations that require net-zero emissions homes, but rolled them back to lower energy efficiency standards after residents pushed back.

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

“Sometimes I get frustrated with the lack of knowledge and the fact that locals think we’re trying to stop them from rebuilding,” Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman said.

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

Polderman said solar panel sidewalks — reinforced solar panels in place of sidewalks on city sidewalks — and wind power could power streetlights and municipal buildings.

OPENING OF NEW AREAS

In the 13 months since the fire, little progress has been made on restoration, with only a quarter of properties cleared of ash and debris.

The local council is still finalizing fire safety bylaws which they say will be the most comprehensive ever in Canada and will make Lytton the most protected community in the country.

The new regulations, based on the National Research Council of Canada’s expertise on community development in wildfire-prone regions, cover everything from building materials to landscaping and maintenance. by what can be stored on properties.

Finalizing the regulations and consulting the community took months.

“I’m sure if we had just said, ‘Let’s get people home as soon as possible,’ it would have been faster, but we could be in the same situation in a few years,” said Kelsey Winter, chair of the BC FireSmart Committee. , a provincial organization responsible for community engagement in Lytton.

“It’s taking longer than a lot of people wanted, but Lytton is breaking new ground.”

Other complications hampered the recovery. Record flooding in November swept away local highways, which were also closed intermittently over the winter to fight avalanches.

Additionally, the village is on Nlaka’pamux First Nation territory and residents require archaeological surveys to verify native artifacts prior to reconstruction. Lytton First Nation, part of the Nlaka’pamux, also lost dozens of homes in the 2021 fire.

INSURANCE LIMITS

About 60% of Lytton residents were uninsured or underinsured, leading to delays in debris removal as residents and insurers debated who should pay. In March, the province announced it would provide C$18.4 million to cover debris removal, archaeological surveys and soil remediation.

Meanwhile, residents are running out of time as temporary subsistence allowances provided by insurers, usually for 18 to 24 months after a disaster, are coming to an end. Adding to the challenges, insurers are reluctant to pay for home upgrades that are enshrined in new building regulations.

“Insurance restores the building you had, not the building you want,” said Aaron Sutherland, vice president of the Pacific Region at Insurance Bureau of Canada.

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

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

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

Emissions from buildings 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 some of the shortfall, providing C$6 million to homeowners with basic reconstruction insurance who want to rebuild net-zero or fire-rated homes.

Meanwhile, Lytton faces another wildfire season. On July 14, a wildfire broke out across the river from Lytton, destroying at least six properties.

Last year, 1,642 wildfires burned 869,279 hectares (2.1 million acres) in British Columbia, which is higher than the 2010-2020 average of 1,352 fires and 348,917 hectares burned.

Some landlords are fed up with delays. Tricia Thorpe, who lives just outside the village limits, is rebuilding without planning permission and others are moving elsewhere.

“I don’t expect to ever rebuild, even if my intention was to,” said retired nurse Michele Feist, 59, whose 100-year-old bright yellow house burned down. “The response has been 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

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