Mona Crowston had only minutes to gather her belongings before the wildfire which had been burning for days at the edge of her town swept down towards her house. The 84-year-old already had a suitcase packed, just in case.

“I made sure to tidy up what I could before we left. The last thing I wanted was to return home and have a messy room,” she said.

She and her husband left on June 30, 2021. Months later, when they finally returned to the site of their home of 47 years, all they found was charred and crumbled foundation.

Most of the Canadian town of Lytton had also been destroyed.

This year’s spring wildfire season has been the worst on record in Canada, with more than 5m hectares of land burned – a figure higher than the entire 2016, 2019, 2020 and 2022 seasons combined.

Already this year, more than 200 homes have been destroyed. And with warmer and drier months are still to come, the experiences of those who saw their lives destroyed in previous wildfires raise larger questions about both Canada’s ability to rebuild after disaster, and its commitment to victims in the months and years after the flames are extinguished.

A wildfire seen from a Canadian forces helicopter surveying the area near Mistissini, Quebec, on 12 June.
A wildfire seen from a Canadian forces helicopter surveying the area near Mistissini, Quebec, on 12 June. Photograph: Canadian Forces/Reuters

In the days leading up to the Lytton fire, the surrounding region of British Columbia had broken heat records – at one point nearly reaching 50C (122F) – and the arid land was more parched than normal.

“The wind that day was all just tremendous,” said Crowston. “And then there was the heat. Everything was so dry.”

When winds finally whipped the fire into Lytton, it only took 30 minutes for most of it to be destroyed. When residents returned briefly to tour the damage, they found the main commercial strip had been turned to dust. Homes and vehicles had seemingly vaporized.

Nearly two years after the fire, similar conditions have set in across Canada, with typically damp regions left bone-dry. Unseasonably hot weather has shattered records in dozens of communities And areas that typically don’t experience roaring blazes – from Vancouver Island in the West and Quebec in the west – and have been left charred.

JR Adams, a member of the Lytton First Nation, bore witness to the destruction of his own community.

And when he saw the recent news coverage of wildfires in Nova Scotia, painful memories came flooding back.

“My heart dropped. I knew there was nothing I could do at that moment, except just feel for the people who lost their homes. I was there. I know. I know how they’re feeling. And to see it on the news again, oh God.”

Damaged structures are seen in Lytton on 9 July 2021.
Damaged structures are seen in Lytton on 9 July 2021. Photograph: Cole Burston/The Guardian

Crowston, Adams and scores of others were displaced and homeless for months.

Flight, loss and homelessness exerted a heavy toll on Adas’s mental health.

“For months, I’d wake up in a room that wasn’t my home. It took a lot of time to accept this. It made facing every day difficult. I didn’t know how to sleep. Even today, I’m scared to sleep,” said Adams.

Earlier this year, the Fraser Valley Current reported on the slow efforts to rebuild Lytton. The village “remains a flattened heap of dirt and concrete”, it reported, with much of the space fenced off. Residents complained of bureaucratic delays and a feeling among they had been forgotten. Work crews have found Indigenous artifacts at excavation sites, further slowing the process. As a result, next to nothing has been rebuilt yet.

With hotter and larger fires projected to sweep across the Canada in the coming years, the collective failure to rebuild in Lytton raises questions about the preparedness of governments to respond to large crises.

“I spent 62 years in Lytton. And I was hoping to rebuild. I just wanted to get home and get on with my life. I miss it terribly,” said Crowston.

A few months before the fire struck, the couple had replaced their bathroom – part of a bigger plan to renovate the property. Just days before the blaze, they had installed a new stained glass front door. “At least we got to enjoy that door for a few days,” she said.

But as the months in temporary accommodation dragged on – one elderly resident died still hoping to return home – Crowston and her husband eventually came to the sad conclusion that there was no going back.

In November, they bought a home in the town of Ashcroft, an hour north of Lytton in a region still within the range of wildfires.

“I’m trying to get settled. But you build your life somewhere. You have community, memories,” said Crowston. “When I looked out the windows of my home in Lytton, you saw mountains. Here, all I see are hedges.”

Glenn McGillivray, the managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, said that Canada no longer had systems in place to help speed up rebuilding efforts after natural disasters.

“That’s not happening anymore. We’re getting really big events, costly events, and they’re coming really, really close together. And in some cases, they’re overlapping,” he said.

Canada’s climate means that the country’s construction season is relatively short, and reconstruction is often complicated by the logistical challenges of bringing large crews to isolated communities. Wildfires also pose unique challenges, such as the way vinyl siding and plastics melt into the ground, turning the soil toxic.

Villagers of Whitecroft, British Columbia, watch the Embleton Mountain wildfire rip down the mountain towards the edge of the village in 2021.
Villagers of Whitecroft, British Columbia, watch the Embleton Mountain wildfire rip down the mountain towards the edge of the village in 2021. Photograph: Cole Burston/The Guardian

In Halifax, where 200 buildings were recently destroyed by wildfires, contractors warn it could take three years to rebuild.

“We just cannot keep this up. Disasters are getting larger and more costly. We’re hitting a point where we’re going to spend more on recovery than we are on building new construction in Canada. That’s the trend and we just can’t keep it up. Something has to happen,” McGillivray said.

While the community of Lytton is under the jurisdiction of the province, the Lytton First Nations reserve is under federal oversight, speeding up elements of the rebuilding process. In September, Adams got word that the modular homes on the Lytton First Nations reserve were ready.

“The moment I got the key, I instantly packed up everything in my room. I left my hotel that night with my car packed with everything. And coming back, it was a rush. I was able to restart my routine again, to be with my family and after a year and a half, to almost feel home,” said Adams. “We’re finally all together, back on our reserves. And I feel like watching the progress happen. It’s like we’re taking our land back. And it’s exciting to watch.”

But widespread news coverage of fires blazing across the country means the looming threat of future wildfires is never far from Adams’ mind.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how quickly things can change and how it can change your life,” said Adams. “People need to understand how fast Mother Nature can take control.”


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