My thoughts are with the people of Lytton and surrounding area right now. It’s a few hundred kilometers away as the motorcycle rides, but I’ve been through it at a few times. Three days ago it was the subject of global headlines as it broke Canada’s all-time recorded heat record of 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) with a mind numbing 49.6 degrees (121 F). And today it’s an empty and smoldering shell, its surviving citizens strewn across central BC.
— Jamie Rye (@tayho1977) July 1, 2021
Its official population was 249. The surrounding region contains another 1,700 rural dwellers. Reports indicate that town is 90% destroyed, with 18 confirmed dead at this point and many residents unaccounted for. So for the town, so for the rural surround. This is devastation.
It’s a complex time to mourn here in Canada. Almost a thousand unmarked graves of First Nations children have been discovered on only two of the roughly 140 religiously-run residential schools former grounds. Ground penetrating radar is looking for more in sites across Canada as the nation mourns the genocide it committed.
But there is room in my heart to mourn for the people of Lytton too. I’m reminded of working in Calgary when 90% of Fort McMurray burned in 2016. I was one of the leaders of my firm’s response, as we tried to automate coordination of donations for food drives. I met with people who had made it out with next to nothing. One woman had a cheap ukelele bought on a whim on some vacation that had become an instant family heirloom, with no explanation for why she had put it in the car before escaping instead of a dozen more meaningful things. She was wearing brand new clothes, as all of her other clothes had burned. That city was flooded a year ago, long before the damage from the fire had been fully repaired, long before the citizens had stopped being traumatized.
Fort McMurray teaches us a lesson pertinent to Lytton. Climate-fueled disasters come in pairs and triplets, compounding the damage of each. The fires of Fort McMurray were fueled by climate change exacerbated drought. The floods of Fort McMurray were enhanced by the shifts in precipitation and temperature.
We see this lesson in Houston, Texas as well. Flooding from the climate-fueled Hurricane Harvey (with many residents having escaped New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and never returning). And then flooding again from shifts in precipitation fueled by climate change. And then massive power outages during freezing temperatures in February of this year. All with the fingerprints of climate change.
And so in Lytton. This week Lytton became known internationally for breaking Canada’s high temperature record of 45 degrees Celsius. As Greta Thunberg pointed out, temperature records are typically broken by tenths of a degree, not 4.6 degrees Celsius, about 8.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The town broke the 45 degree record three times, each on subsequent days.
Hundreds of people died of the heat in British Columbia in the past week. There is no record I can find of heat-related deaths in Lytton specifically, but at least 70 people died within a few kilometers of me here in Vancouver. I live in one of the highest social safety net areas in one of the richest countries in the world with cheap and plentiful electricity, and yet people died of being too hot. Vancouver has one of the most moderate climates that exist on Earth, existing within a normal range of 20 degrees Celsius from the high single digits to the mid-twenties, is blessed with plentiful greenery, and surrounded by the ocean, and yet dozens died of the heat here.
If no one died in Lytton due solely to the heat, then it was too soon to celebrate. The climate change fueled drought, and the pine forests dead of pine borer beetles no longer kept in check by cold winters, once again a climate change impact, and the massive climate change fueled heat wave that dried what moisture was left in the forests and fields, created tinder for the slightest spark.
And the slightest spark happened. It doesn’t really matter what it was. It could have been a sociopathically careless smoker like the one who tossed their smoldering butt in a rooftop flower bed the other day, leading to smoky hallways, firemen, and hoses on my hottest day in my condo here. It could have been an electrical wire, insulation melted by the heat, sparking into a stand of dead and desiccated weeds. It could have been a piece of metal banging into another piece of metal or rock, a spark flying into a field. It could have been lightning.
But a spark happened. And the tinderbox of Lytton and its surrounding region erupted into flames. Without warning. There aren’t a tremendous number of directions to go from Lytton — south, northeast, and northwest on the three roads that meet in the tiny town. It’s unclear now, and it would have been vastly less clear on the ground as the residents threw random possessions into cars and trucks, or watered their roofs, or tried to save a local building, or simply stared. It would have been impossible to know which way to drive to survive.
Yes, the heat wave was as bad as it was, shattering previous records by a massive amount, and yes the wildfire was rapid and devastating due to climate change.
Over a year ago, when I was starting on the work which led to the recently published climate change planned retreat report from Natural Resources Canada, Patrick Saunders-Hastings, Brent Doberstein, and I were discussing the list of climate change impacts that required retreat. I had added forest fires to the list, and it persisted. As Fort McMurray and Lytton show, where there is no planned retreat, there is unplanned retreat. We have entered into a new period, when communities in areas vastly more susceptible to fires than before have to consider whether it is worth staying where they are and fortifying against fires, or adapting by departing entirely. The lessons of Florida after hurricanes, Fort McMurray after the fires, and New Orleans after Katrina tell us that many of the residents of Lytton will never return.
Naturally, the climate change deniers on Quora, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media are already swarming to assert, heartlessly, ignorantly, and intransigently that the dead in Lytton weren’t killed by climate change, the houses and businesses weren’t burnt to the ground by climate change, that heat happens, that summertime happens, that forest fires happen, and all of the other cruel and vicious nonsense their bitter hearts hold onto. As yet another community is devastated, as yet more families mourn, as the economic and emotional toll rises, the deniers cling to their blinders. That they hold onto their irrational belief in the face of overwhelming evidence is one thing, but that they are heartlessly ignoring the suffering of Lytton’s citizens and blaring their cruel denials without a shred of sympathy is yet another. Their souls have shriveled to nothingness. They have lost what humanity they ever had.
Canada Day was subdued this year. Across the country, flags were lowered. Media was focused on the discovered bodies of hundreds of First Nations children, and the knowledge that likely thousands more awaited discovery. Celebrations, where they existed, were muted, often with extended remembrances of our national shame. And Lytton was a First Nations tragedy as well. Five First Nations bands are in the area around the town, and the administrative offices of Lytton First Nations are among those destroyed. My thoughts are with them, and as always I’m focused on advancing climate solutions so that fewer will be impacted in the future.
Canada will assist Lytton’s people. Canadians will assist Lytton’s people. Canada and Canadians will assist the First Nations people. If you would like to assist too, send money to one of these fundraisers, not supplies or toys or flats of water.