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Nearly 33,000 British Columbians displaced by wildfire in 2021

Stuck in Merritt motel, two 82-year-old survivors of the Lytton fire are among at least 340 people across B.C. still without a home. Experts say climate change will only increase the number of Canadians internally displaced by fire and flood.
At least 32,882 people were displaced by wildfire in B.C. in 2021. Of those, at least 340 remain without a home, though that number is likely higher, according to provincial authorities.

Henry and Donna Robinson never thought they would leave their three-bedroom home.

Not far from the river and surrounded by fruit trees, the couple, both 82, spent 11 happy years there, living out their retirement.

“We were comfortable. We knew a few people up the road. Everything was handy,” says Henry.

Then came the heat, so hot the town of Lytton, B.C., set and reset Canada’s all-time temperature record, topping out at 49.3 C on June 29, 2021. The next day, the wind blew. Something sparked a blaze within five feet of a nearby train track and wildfire roared through the village, burning it to the ground.

The conflagration caught international headlines, a tragedy perfectly encapsulating the link between climate change and its real-time fallout. Like many of the residents who fled near-death 114 days ago, the Robinsons left almost everything behind. 

“We only had three minutes to get out,” recalls Henry. “The cop at the door screaming at me. That’s the notice we got.” 

Henry and Donna jumped in their car and drove through the smoke and past raging fires, toward the nearby town of Spences Bridge some 35 kilometres away. That’s where the couple had a friend with a motel. But when they got there, the rooms were full of other people pushed from their homes. So they went to another motel.

“We just sat down, and we got evacuated again. Two evacuations in less than an hour,” Henry tells Glacier Media.

The fire that burned Lytton was just the start of one of the worst fire seasons on record. Across B.C. this summer, 1,610 wildfires displaced at least 32,882 people, according to Emergency Management BC. That’s nearly five and a half times the number of people forced from their homes in 2018; compared to the 2017 fire season, regarded as the worst in B.C.’s modern record, it's half.

Today, roughly 340 people are still scattered across B.C. on emergency assistance from the province — sleeping on couches, staying with friends or family, or like the Robinsons, stuck in a run-down motel on the side of the highway. 

Glacier Media has spoken with former Lytton residents who, traumatized by fire, abandoned the province for Alberta; others have been fortunate enough to have another home in Victoria, Clinton or a nearby First Nations community. 

Experts say the displacement of tens of thousands of people due to wildfire this year is just a sign of things to come — flooding and fire are expected to force more Canadians from their homes in the coming years as sea levels climb, rivers swell and drought gives way to infernos.

“It’s a big problem. It’s something that people don’t like to talk about. It’s much sexier to talk about ‘climate refugees,’” says Yvonne Su, a researcher at York University specializing in forced migration due to climate change. 

“It’s way harder to talk about climate displacement.”

By 2050, researchers at the World Bank estimate climate change will displace 213 million people across six of the world's developing regions, from North Africa and Eastern Europe to Latin America and Central Asia. But Su says there isn’t much data on how many Canadians might be displaced by climate change in the future.

Geography and past experience offer some hints. The Insurance Bureau of Canada says there are roughly 500,000 homes across Canada that should but don't show up as high-risk on flood maps, now 20 to 25 years out of date. That includes low-lying areas in B.C.'s Lower Mainland and riverside communities across the country. 

Fire is harder to predict. Researchers and fire ecologists say B.C. forests are saturated with wood fuel after over 100 years of dangerous forestry practices stunted the natural rhythms of low-intensity wildfire. But while huge swaths of the province are put at risk every summer, fire hits some harder than others. 

Indigenous people make up less than five per cent of Canada’s population but account for nearly half of the 522,000 people evacuated due to wildfire since 1980, according to the Canadian Wildland Fire Evacuation Database.

The number of reserves evacuated in Canada due to wildfire doubled over the past decade; in B.C., the number climbed 119 per cent.

“If we talk about Indigenous communities, they’ve often been forced to relocate,” says Yu. “There is a lot of environmental racism that takes place.”

Once evacuated, a displaced person’s age and income can make it harder for them to start over.

Edith Loring-Kuhanga, a school administrator at the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School — located about five kilometres outside of Lytton — says she’s especially worried about displaced seniors. 

In downtown Lytton, where the fire is said to have destroyed 90 per cent of the village, Loring-Kunhunga says the majority of the population is elderly. 

“It’s hard to be equitable,” says Jennifer Thoss, a former Lytton resident who used to rent her home to the Robinsons. “People who have access to the internet can reach out for help.”

For seniors like Henry and Donna, Thoss says the whole experience has shut them out of public outpourings of support and left them feeling beaten down. 

Henry says the timing couldn’t have been worse. Shortly before the June fire, he suffered a stroke.

“I’m just not recuperating,” he says from a motel room in Merritt where the couple now lives. “Nothing is happening. I’m still, you know, weak in the knees. I can't control my hands that well, especially my left side. I get dizzy. And Donna, well, her health isn’t that great either. She takes 18 pills a day.” 

Before his stroke, Henry says he was an active man, regularly tending to the couple’s fruit orchard. Now, he says the only thing he has to do is shop for groceries and help his wife around their one-bedroom converted motel room. 

“I can hardly walk. And that weighs very heavy on what's left on my mind,” he says.

The outside world feels like it’s slowly being sealed off around them, he adds. The couple doesn’t have any friends nearby. Their insurance company hasn’t responded in over a month. And whenever they try to call for assistance from the government, they’re placed on hold for hours. 

“Nobody really wants to talk to you,” he says. “‘So they lost everything, we don’t give a shit.’ That's the attitude that most people take now.”

“People have got short memories.”

When asked, Henry says there’s little chance he and Donna will ever return to Lytton. Hope, he says, comes in small doses, like finding somewhere a little safer and a little bigger than the motel room they now call home.

“All the ones that are lost, we’re on our own. We're going to have to fight it out ourselves,” he says. “It’s just a snowball effect, I guess, and there's nothing we can do about it. Got to live with it. We’re learning how.”

Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everything in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email [email protected]