BCHF News Time Travels: Life after fire in Lytton

Time Travels: Life after fire in Lytton

Devastation at the core of Lytton. Photo: Mark Forsythe

By Mark Forsythe

“NO STOPPING NEXT 3 kms.” I pay heed to a stark yellow sign on the road that bisects the remains of Lytton, catching glimpses of blackened foundations, burned-out vehicles, and solitary chimneys as I drive slowly past a lightly screened fence. Rain has tamped down the acrid smell of ash and chemicals. It comes eight weeks too late. The town has no hospital. No homes or businesses. No life.

A fire driven by intense winds and a record-breaking heat wave roared through Lytton on June 30, 2021, as citizens scrambled for their lives. In just 20 minutes the historic village was gone, and two people were killed.

No stopping is permitted on the road bisecting what was once downtown Lytton. Photo: Mark Forsythe

BCHM: What’s going through your mind just over two months after the fire?
Lorna: I’m glad I left the museum early that day because I was working in the basement, and I don’t think I would have known until the building was on fire. That actually happened next door…They were in the house and didn’t know it was occurring until their wall was on fire. That’s how fierce and fast it was. If it had been in the night, I think we would have lost a lot of people. [Her two sons lost their homes, and her daughter’s business burned to the ground.]

Mostly it makes me sad … particularly where people gave me things like their mother’s Chinese skirt. I’m planning to rebuild, getting support, and have put out a call for artifacts. I’m most frustrated with how slowly things go after a fire; I’m still waiting to see if anything is salvageable. It won’t be the same, but I’m hoping to create a museum that’s as valuable. Having the database allows me to still have a research centre.

Richard: One hundred and fifty years of history was lost. If the fossils are gone, it’s 125 million years of history. It’s very disappointing that things are taking so long, and people want to help now. We hope that they’ll want to help six months or a year from now when we can actually get stuff done. The village insurance will cover rebuilding the building, but if we can find things, we do have the database. Everything will have to be restored to some extent, and that’s an expensive and long process on its own. We’re kind of looking towards that as where we really need help. [Richard worked at the destroyed St. Bartholomew hospital and alerted staff to the fire. There were also museum artifacts on display there.]

John: June 30 changed everything that we knew from the day before. I was acting Chief that day and asked Roger James to send out a robotext to evacuate, and he was able to get that message out to our members. That system was put in place just prior to COVID, so we’re glad we had that. I did get to go to my home and was able to retrieve just two baskets [not his own] and my passport. That was it. The fire had started to come into my kitchen. Our family collection was huge because my mother had baskets from our own family, from her sisters and sisters-in-law. There’s a really strong tradition and connection to basketry and the artwork that goes into them, a labour of love.

John Haugen (Lytton First Nation), Richard Forrest (Lytton Museum & Archives Commission), and Lorna Fandrich (Lytton Chinese History Museum) gather at the Kumsheen Rafting Resort. They all plan to rebuild. Photo: Mark Forsythe 

BCHM: Why is it important to rebuild?
We need to know why we’re here. We need to know who the people are, what they’ve done. If you don’t preserve, then the town just disappears off the face of the earth. If we don’t, then all we’ll have is a brand-new town.

Lorna: I’m still passionate about getting out the story about the Chinese in Lytton. I don’t want to be one of the businesses that scrams! For me, that took some thought. When I built the first building, I was 64; by the time I get [the next] one built, I’ll be 71. I think we’ll take a chance and see where it evolves.

John: The Indigenous story has been here for over 10,000 years—it’s been said that Lytton is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America. When early people came here, they said the Nlaka’pamux people were like ants on an anthill. We are so connected to this land we would feel displaced if we went anywhere else. I really know we’ll come back strong in our Nation here.

BCHM: What will it take to rebuild?
Lorna: There was a Chinese railway camp here at Kumsheen, and after some of the cabins burned down, the guys were raking up all the nails and found some small pieces of pottery. Now those six little pieces mean a lot to me. Some things will reappear that way. The Chinese Canadian Historical Society has done a fundraiser to be shared equally between myself and the Lytton First Nation. Clinton Museum did a fundraiser for my museum and the village museum. Blake MacKenzie from the Gold Trails & Ghost Towns [Facebook] group did a fundraiser for both of us. Chinatown Storytelling Centre are hoping to raise $10,000 for the building.

John: We have to start by trying to get a digital record of the baskets because nothing at the Lytton Band survived. Nothing. A teacher who worked here in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and now lives in Calgary reached out to me two days after the fire; she has baskets and wants to drop them off. We don’t have many buildings left. What we do have we want to use to help young people stay connected to what was important to our past and what we bring forward into the future.

Richard: Once the building is there, the real aim is to make sure we can do more modern displays and digitize a lot of things. There are some metal objects probably worth saving. We’ll try to save everything we can and make a judgement later and start to rebuild a collection from that. We’re going to rebuild, no doubt about that.

Following the interview, Lorna Fandrich added: “The BC Heritage Emergency Response Network and Team Rubicon spent two days salvaging artifacts from the museum. I now have 200 pieces in varying degrees of quality packed up in my garage. Many of the intact pieces have melted glass from the display shelves attached to them, unavoidable but disappointing.”

Rebuilding Collections

Above left: These fragments were discovered after the fires at the Kumsheen Rafting Resort site, once the location of a Chinese railway camp. Lorna Fandrich is rebuilding the collection for the Lytton Chinese History Museum, and her brother-in-law is assisting by gathering artifacts. If you have Chinese artifacts to share, please them send to: Fred Fandrich, 63420 Yale Road, Hope, BC V0X 1L2. Richard Forrest is also collecting journals, photographs, and other items for the Lytton Museum & Archives. Contact rforrest@botaniecreek.com. John Haugen is seeking Nlaka’pamux baskets (above right) for the Lytton First Nation and to rebuild his personal collection. Contact cc.jhaugen@lfn.band

Mark Forsythe travels through BC and back in time, exploring the unique work of British Columbia Historical Federation members.