Last Sunday, Mayor Jan Polderman’s town, a small village in British Columbia called Lytton, made international news when it became the hottest place in Canadian history. Then on Monday, his town broke that record. And on Tuesday, it did it again, reaching 121.3 degrees — hotter than Miami’s hottest day on record. But by sundown on Wednesday, his town — which was home to 250 residents, and surrounded by 2,000 First Nation people — virtually no longer existed, consumed by a wildfire in a matter of minutes.
This week, Polderman published an open letter to the residents of his town who have been scattered throughout the province in emergency shelters and friends’ couches, unable to return to their home. “Where many buildings stood is now simply charred earth,” the mayor wrote. Officials have estimated that 90 percent of the town was destroyed in the fire. “For those looking at heartbreaking pictures of our village, please understand that if a wall is standing, it does not mean there is anything on the other side of it.”
The wildfire erupted as the “heat dome” descended on the Pacific Northwest, bringing record-breaking, dangerously high temperatures from Portland, Oregon to Western Canada. The heatwave killed at least 500 people in British Columbia alone, and along 4,000 miles of Pacific shoreline, literally cooked a billion shellfish in their shells.
That brutal confluence of record temperatures, months of drought, and high winds made it nearly impossible for local officials to get ahead of the fire. In his letter, the mayor said his staff learned of the threat “when someone banged on the office windows after hours.”
An evacuation order was issued just minutes before the fire arrived, but the village’s emergency operations center was destroyed in the blaze, and power and cellphone towers were quickly compromised, so many residents didn’t know the fire was coming until they saw smoke billowing outside their windows. “We were trying to check to see if there were any emergency orders, or any information about what was happening,” said Gordon Murray, a Lytton resident, to CBC News. “We could see that there was a lot of smoke. But we couldn’t find anything. But then the cell service died and the power went out, and we knew that it was serious.”
Many residents fled the fire with less than 20 minutes of warning, collecting their loved ones and packing what they could in their cars. Murray, who couldn’t find one of their family cats before they had to evacuate, filmed his frantic drive out of the village. “We could actually hear the timbers exploding as we were driving,” said Murray. “We’d come around a corner and have big flames shooting out on one side or the other…We finally saw a little bit of sky beyond the smoke and we realized that we were going in the right direction, or a direction that was going to get us out of there.”
The 44-mile-per-hour winds fed the fires and scattered embers through the valley, while blowing water from fire hoses away from the blaze. For some residents, the embers spread to their homes before they could evacuate, immediately igniting the drought-parched landscape. “I finally got one little spot fire out and then this one started,” Jeff Chapman told CBC. He eventually took shelter by laying on the gravel along the train tracks for 45 minutes while the fire raged around him. “The whole house went up. The time between when I saw smoke and when I knew there was trouble? I don’t think it was 10 minutes.”
Residents have seen images in the media of entire blocks leveled, melted cars, and brick buildings charred down to the support beams, but none of them have been allowed into the town since the evacuation; the wildfire is still burning, and officials have been assessing the toxicity and smoke levels in the town. But today, the local government will take residents, including the mayor, through the village in an escorted bus tour to see the destruction, and what might have survived.
In his letter, Polderman warned residents that even if their homes are among the few that are still standing, the town’s infrastructure — including power, water, and sewage — was all destroyed, leaving little to come back to. “What has not been melted, incinerated or damaged beyond repair has been compromised to the point of being unsafe,” wrote the mayor. And with the emergency operations center destroyed, he wrote, they are “currently trying to operate it from a couple of laptops, an iPad and our cellphones.”
Residents are eager to see what made it. When Murray left, his house was still standing, and he told CBC he’s hopeful that it might have been spared. Chapman’s home is gone — “what we worked our whole life for” — but he’s eager to recover the bodies of both of his parents, who were killed when a power line fell on the trench they were taking shelter in.
The government is providing trauma and grief counseling on the busses, the mayor wrote, “to assist with the shock people are going to experience upon actually seeing the devastation.”
“I’m afraid to go back,” said Byron Spinks, elder and former chief of the Lytton First Nation, “but I want to go back at the same time just to witness the devastation and to make us acknowledge the loss that we’ve had.”
This magnitude of destruction will only become more common as the climate crisis progresses. This fire already has a precedent: In 2018, the Paradise, California, wildfire destroyed 95 percent of the town in a matter of minutes. And studies have assured us that instances of “megafires” will increase as temperatures rise and droughts expand; one study projects that by the middle of the century, we’ll have 35 percent more “fire days” per year. “We’re at the spear point of climate change, but it’s coming for everybody,” said Murray. “We have to work together to get ready to make changes now, because as we discovered, if you’re scrambling at the last minute, you leave people behind.”