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Surrounded by wildfire: inside Lillooet where a community supports Lytton fire survivors

Part 1 – Summer Communications intern, Ayden Harrison, shares her experiences of the 2021 wildfires from her home in rural Lillooet, BC

 

There is a constant hum of helicopter blades and water bombers flying overhead. When I took the internship at Ecotrust Canada I didn’t think that while working remotely I’d experience this historic devastation. Wednesday, June 30, at around 10pm, we got a call that Lytton was on fire and the town had been evacuated. The checkpoint for the Red Cross was in Lillooet, so the town sent out an alert asking people for donations. My parents and I grabbed clothes and bedding that we weren’t using. We drove to the rec centre and dropped off donations. The centre was chaos; people were crying, volunteers were running around. We volunteered to help and set up cots and bedding. I found baby carriages and strollers that people had donated to arrange a section for the babies who hadn’t stopped crying. My friend couldn’t find his family who live in Lytton, as they had been separated on the drive out, so we spent hours looking for them, calling hotels, and asking displaced residents at the centre if they had seen them. At around 1am, we found them. I spent the rest of the night sorting through donations and talking to some of the now displaced people of Lytton.

The smoke really affects my eyes. They are red, dry, and irritated all the time. It affects your voice, making it scratchy. If you are outside for too long, it feels like you have a head cold. The lack of oxygen in the air makes it hard to stay outdoors for long periods of time. Luckily the smoke usually doesn’t move in until around noon, so the mornings are somewhat clear. On the weekend, during the heat wave, the smoke made it even more muggy, and you can’t take a full breath in. It smells like a campfire all the time.

The highways and roads in and out of Lillooet are surrounded by wildfire, so we are stuck here. The road toward Lytton is blocked off, as it’s still an active fire zone. The McKay Creek fire had jumped the river and started burning along the highway to Kamloops. We are on constant lightning watch as the weekend storm started wildfires on Seton Ridge. It is terrifying because you’re stuck, you can’t do anything but wait.

McKay Creek Fire, July 2021, Ayden Harrison photo from Lillooet, BC

Lillooet hasn’t been put on evacuation alert, but all the communities surrounding us have. Everyone has a to-go bag and an evacuation plan. We all saw how fast the fire in Lytton changed directions and burnt the whole town. Even now, as I go outside and stand in my yard, and I can see a mushroom cloud of smoke in every direction.

Some days, I forget what it means to live in a small rural community, but I remember whenever there is a wildfire. I watched as my community rallied around people in need. I watched businesses donate hundreds of dollars’ worth of food and supplies to the emergency support centre. I watched people spend countless hours setting up check-in sites and making sure that the people felt somewhat comforted. The sense of community that I felt on those days was incredible. Everyone showed up, and everyone helped. There wasn’t a single person who didn’t open their arms and help the people who had lost everything feel like they had something.

Pat Maw, Lytton Fi

“I was in shock the first day, shellshocked from the ride out through the back, the big wall of orange and the lack of oxygen in the air. And as the fire pulsed, you could feel the heat smacking you in the face, so we were close.” – Pat Maw, Lytton wildfire survivor

Small towns and rural, remote communities can be the most resilient to natural disasters, and climate change impacts. In 2009, there was a massive wildfire, and Lillooet almost burned to the ground. I’ve lived here all of my life, and the summers are usually full of smoke. Every year we persevere — but every year it gets hotter — and you see the effects of climate change more and more. We have to continue to mitigate and then adapt as a community, changing along with the environment to survive because if not, I don’t know if we’ll make it.

July 7, 2021, Lillooet, BC.

By Ayden Harrison, summer Communications Specialist, Natural Climate Solutions, Ecotrust Canada

Smokey skies in Lilloeet, BC, after the Lytton wildfire June 30, 2021, photo by Ayden Harrison