Anglican eyewitnesses escape Lytton ‘inferno’

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“We waited ... and watched the village burn,” Delva said. “Then it jumped the Thompson and it was heading for the gas station, so we just had to go.” Photo: Melanie Delva

Residents face uncertain future after homes, churches destroyed

Smoke rises from the ruins of Lytton. Photo: Melanie Delva

The plumes of smoke over Lytton, B.C. were an “apocalyptic” sight for Melanie Delva.

But what the Anglican Church of Canada’s reconciliation animator remembers most from June 30—the day her home and all her possessions were destroyed by the fire, the day Lytton burned to the ground—are the sounds.

“When I opened the front door, there was just an inferno,” Delva recalled. “I’ll never forget the sounds, because I could hear the flames and the wind, but also people screaming. I could just hear people screaming.”

As the fire closed in and spread to the roof and back of the house she shared with her wife Erin Aleck and their dog Dexter, Delva realized the danger they were in.

“I’ll never forget the sound of the ceiling on fire, because I could hear the fire in the ceiling and the ceiling was crackling and there was smoke coming out of the electrical sockets,” she said. “Then we just knew we had to go.”

Aleck grabbed Dexter and went to check on the neighbours while Delva took a box of important personal records and her wife’s ceremonial eagle fan. The three piled into their truck and raced off to check on a nearby elder who had been napping earlier in the afternoon, as Lytton went up in flames around them.

They discovered the elder’s vehicle was gone and knew she was safe. Delva, Aleck and Dexter also managed to escape the fire. But their lives would never be the same.

* * *

The trail of destruction left by the Lytton wildfire turned much of the village and surrounding First Nations into smoking ruins. The flames consumed not just houses, but community centres, band offices and churches.

Among the destroyed churches was St. Mary and St. Paul’s Anglican Church, a historic wooden building nearly 150 years old located on Lytton First Nation. St. Mary and St. Paul’s was one of two Anglican churches in Lytton. The other, St. Barnabas Anglican Church, survived the wildfire along with its rectory and parish hall.

St. Mary and St. Paul’s Anglican Church, on the Lytton reserve, was burned to the ground. Photo: Melanie Delva

The Rev. Angus Muir, priest of Lytton Anglican Parish, lives in the town of Ashcroft located 80 km away, but regularly conducted services at the two churches in Lytton. He described an ongoing sense of dislocation felt by residents across the parish after the trauma of the fire.

“I think there’s starting to be some sense of resolve that it has happened and to move forward,” Muir said in mid-August. “But still, even today, people are scattered as far away as Abbotsford and Kelowna and Kamloops, Merritt. They’re all over the place, and they’ve lost their centre of community.”

The Lytton wildfire was one of many that swept across British Columbia this summer, following a devastating heat wave that caused hundreds of deaths and which scientists have linked to human-caused climate change. As of Aug. 16, the B.C. Wildfire Service had recorded more than 1,500 wildfires across the province so far this year, leading to large-scale evacuations in many communities.

Before the fire, the village of Lytton had an estimated population of 250. But it also served as a hub for more than 1,500 to 2,000 First Nations residents in the surrounding area. Muir noted that people in communities such as Kanaka Creek, Siska and Lillooett often travelled to Lytton for its grocery stores, doctor’s office and post office.

Even those whose homes were not destroyed, Muir said, were feeling great loss.

“People are in mourning. And that’s not going to get rectified until the communities rebuild again, until we have the centre again.”

* * *

Immediately before the wildfire tore through the village, Lytton had broken the record on three consecutive days for the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada, with temperatures reaching around 50 C.

Melanie Delva (left), her wife Erin Aleck and their dog Dexter in a photo taken in April. Photo: Melanie Delva

Like many residents, at the time of the fire Delva and Aleck were sitting inside their home trying to avoid the suffocating heat outside, with blackout curtains pulled and an air conditioner they had borrowed days earlier on full blast. Wildfires were already raging in other parts of the B.C. interior. Lytton residents had become used to the smell of smoke and the noise of helicopters overhead pulling buckets of water from the river to fight the fires.

Earlier that day, the couple had driven out to Botanie Valley, an area sometimes called the breadbasket of the N’laka’pamux Nation due to its abundant supply of berries and natural medicine. On their way back into Lytton, Delva had taken photos of smoke plumes from north and south that were beginning to converge.

Sitting at home around 4 p.m.—the hottest part of the day—Delva and Aleck got their first hint of immediate danger. They saw a photo on Facebook of a train on fire in the community of Boston Bar 45 km away. Delva noted the smell of smoke was particularly strong. Aleck saw another photo of a fire near their home and pulled back the blackout curtains. Through the window she saw flames and smoke surging towards a propane tank and truck right outside the house. Delva opened the door—and was faced with the smoke and screams.

Delva and Aleck experienced some frightening moments as they attempted to drive out of the village to safety.

“We tried to go through an alley, but by that time, the whole town was in flames, so we almost ended up going headfirst into another truck that was also trying to get out of the alley,” Delva said.

“It was just chaos. … No one knew where the fire was coming from, because it happened so fast, and so you didn’t know which way to go.”

Eventually they found their way north and crossed the Thompson River to the G’wsep gas station, where they thought they were safe.

“We waited there and watched the village burn,” Delva said. “We watched it burn. Then it jumped the Thompson and it was heading for the gas station, so we just had to go.”

Reluctant to travel through the mountains because they didn’t know where the fires were, Delva and Aleck took a long route along back roads to the town of Merritt. What was usually a one-hour drive took six hours. But they arrived in Merritt safely. Taking up residence at a local hotel, they pondered an uncertain future.

* * *

Many other residents in and around Lytton found themselves in a similar situation after the fire, including those active in the Anglican parish.

Deputy chief John Haugen of Lytton First Nation—who is also warden at St. Mary and St. Paul’s and a member of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples—lost his own home in the fire, as did his siblings. His nephew lost two homes.

Ash and debris from the fire are still visible on Aleck’s ceremonial eagle fan, grabbed by Delva as the two fled. Photo: Melanie Delva

“Many people are displaced and we had no hydro or electricity on many of our reserves for more than three weeks,” Haugen said. “The homes that didn’t burn, they lost their fridges and freezers and they had to more or less discard them because everything was lost in those.”

Speaking to the Journal in late August, Haugen said that while residents were holding up as best they could, many were unable to return home due to highway closures and evacuation orders as wildfires continued to rage. Annual traditions that residents rely upon, he added, had also been disrupted.

“People would have normally been harvesting salmon and stuff like that to get ready for winter, and most weren’t able to do that,” Haugen said.

The destruction of St. Mary and St. Paul’s has hit Indigenous Anglicans particularly hard in Lytton First Nation.

“Prior to the fire, one of our members, she wanted us to get security for the church because [in] a lot of our neighbouring communities, [churches] were getting burnt down willfully,” Haugen said. “She was asking that, and then all of a sudden, this happens.”

* * *

While Lytton residents were grappling with how to get back on their feet, donations to help those in need poured in from Anglicans across Canada. The Territory of the People quickly began raising funds to help clergy provide cash to cover emergency needs for those made homeless or displaced, and to support future rebuilding.

Meanwhile, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) offered a grant of $5,000. Executive director Will Postma said by the middle of August, PWRDF had raised nearly $25,000 to support those affected by the fire.

As of press time, much of the money initially raised by the Territory of the People and the $5,000 contributed by PWRDF had been used for immediate needs such as food, water, fuel, and accommodation. Postma said PWRDF was working closely with people on the ground such as Archbishop Lynne McNaughton, metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon; retired Territory of the People bishops Barbara Andrews and Gordon Light; and Melissa Green, children, youth and family life coordinator at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Kamloops, who were helping coordinate the church’s response.

“It’s a great coming together of many concerned people to respond to the generosity of Canadian Anglicans in such a time of critical need,” Postma said.

He added that PWRDF is also drawing lessons from its responses to flooding and wildfires in Fort McMurray—one of which is the importance of providing for more long-term needs.

“Given that there’s many other agencies doing their best to respond, we also know that some of that money, as Archbishop Lynne and Bishop Andrews have suggested, can really help in the mid- to longer term for pastoral needs, psychosocial support [and] trauma counselling for those who’ve been so impacted,” Postma said.

* * *

As of late summer, people affected by the fire were still preoccupied with immediate needs such as finding places to live.

A T-shirt created by Delva in the fire’s aftermath. Photo: Melanie Delva

For weeks afterward, Delva and Aleck stayed in a hotel in Merritt. When the fires began to approach Merritt, they left to stay at a camp in the Boston Bar area, hosted by N’laka’pamux relatives. Haugen also initially stayed in Merritt at a friend’s house, before moving in with associates at Anderson Creek.

Delva compared the wildfire to the COVID-19 pandemic as something that unveiled systemic inequalities but also inspired “simple but profound acts of kindness that maybe we didn’t know we could hope for.” She cited an online fundraiser that friends quickly set up to support her, Aleck and Dexter, which Delva called “overwhelming in its kindness.”

In the aftermath of the fire, Delva received gift cards for the Fields discount store chain, but was unaware there was an expiry date that required her to use them within three days. Stocking up on $400 worth of camping supplies she and her wife needed to survive, Delva was informed at the checkout that the voucher had expired the day before and the store would not honour it. At that moment, Delva remembered, an elderly woman behind her said, “Don’t worry, I’ll just pay for it.”

The memory of the woman’s kindness brought Delva to tears.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover, but she didn’t look like the kind of person that had $400 to spend at the drop of a hat,” Delva said. In the end, the store honoured the gift card.

Amidst the disaster and its aftermath, Haugen said, many found solace through faith. In Lytton First Nation, he said, “a lot more people started to pray, and others that haven’t prayed in their [Indigenous] language prayed for the first time in public in the language.”

While channeling many of her emotions from the fire into art, Delva too has drawn renewed strength from her faith and from the knowledge that people are praying for her and her family.

“I don’t know where I would be without my faith,” she said. “I know what matters now.”

She says the life-giving prayers started nearly from the moment they fled, when she was able to upload some photos of their blazing house to social media.

“The moment that we left the driveway, I posted on Facebook and I know that people started praying then. And I know that that’s kept us alive ’til today.”

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Matt Gardner

Matt Gardner

Matt Gardner is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Gardner worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Gardner has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He will continue to support corporate communications efforts during his time at the Journal.

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