Lytton, BC: My personal journey and climate change poster child

Lytton, BC: My personal journey and climate change poster child

Conservation Northwest / Jul 13, 2021 / British Columbia, Our Staff, Wildfire

2021 Fire Dispatch #2: At the spearpoint of climate change

*Editor’s Note: During the big wildfires that burned across eastern Washington in 2015, we published a series of”dispatches” from our staff living and working in communities affected by fire. As 2021’s fire season as gotten off to a historically challenging start, we’ve again encouraged our team to share their perspectives from the field.

BY Joe Scott, International Programs Director

When I first moved to Washington state in the 1980’s, long before I started working for Conservation Northwest, and curious about British Columbia, I drove up the Fraser River Valley intending to make the loop across the Coast Range and back south through Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish—with lots of hiking in between. It was August and it was hot.

The hikes were memorable; but the two most vivid imprints of the trip were watching Indigenous people dip-netting for salmon in the Fraser with fish camps lining the banks, and the small town of Lytton. Here was this understated, mostly indigenous, one main street picturesque town that didn’t seem to recognize the uniqueness of its geography, sitting unassumingly at the confluence of the free-flowing Fraser and Thompson Rivers; the largest salmon producing systems this side of Alaska.

The rivers, the mountains, the people, the rugged, wild country clad in sage and ponderosa pines—were etched in my mind and I was hooked.

But I couldn’t possibly have known at the time that the route and its Nlaka’pamux Indigenous communities of which Lytton First Nation is a part, would geographically and collaboratively frame and define my future work helping with the restoration of grizzly bears and a more intact landscape to southwest B.C. It would still be a couple years before Mitch Friedman would launch Conservation Northwest as the Greater Ecosystem Alliance and eventually provide me with that incredible opportunity.

Lytton is now gone. A spark of as yet unknow origin coaxed to monstrous life by extremely dry conditions under 121-degree temperatures—the highest ever recorded in Canada (or Las Vegas for that matter) raced through the town and erased it from the map. Everyone in the area had to evacuate with 15 minutes notice.

We don’t yet know the overall status of people’s homes in the Lytton area and have no concept of how this one event has derailed their lives; or what it portends for the future. As Lytton resident Gordon Murray put it in a CBC interview,

“We’re at the spearpoint of climate change but it’s coming for everybody”. Indeed. We, myself included, complain when it’s 90 degrees; try 121 on for size – in a place where most folks don’t have AC.

The Lytton tragedy is part of a pattern of increasing fire frequency and intensity in British Columbia and unsurprisingly steeply declining salmon runs in the Fraser/Thompson systems. It’s estimated that one billion mussels, clams and other sea life died on parts of the B.C. coast during the recent heat wave as record high temperatures coincided with some of the year’s lowest tides. All of the above and our own part of the “heat dome” in Washington state should serve as official notice that we here in the Pacific Northwest are part of the everybody of climate change. So what’s to be done?

I have a short list. Keep doing what we do to make things better—protect and connect the pieces and places. Keep hope alive and fight like hell in whatever way you can to change our admittedly challenging climate trajectory. Help those, like our Indigenous friends, many of whom already live under stressful social and ecological conditions as legacies of colonialism and because subsistence on First Foods—plants, fish and wildlife—is life, not luxury, and are widely declining or vulnerable.

The recent discoveries of mass burial sites of indigenous children at forced resident schools in B.C. have combined with the growing ecological disasters to stagger our Nlaka’pamux, St’át’imc, Stó:lō, Okanagan and other First Nations partners, friends and communities. The conditions and challenges are of course not unlike those of Indigenous communities here in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Our work and relationships with these communities have redefined resilience for me. My understanding of toughness and resourcefulness have been expanded and reshaped. And like our black and brown brothers and sisters, Indigenous peoples have weathered centuries of genocidal persecution, indignity and alienation—from their cultures, families and way of life.

Yet many have emerged stronger and are fighting successfully to regain control over their traditional territories and lifeways as a path to cultural renewal. In this there are lessons to be learned. Climate change is an unprecedented, existential challenge and it will take unprecedented resilience, toughness and resourcefulness to get through it with enough pieces of nature to allow her to restore herself.

Nature is resilient. So are those on the spear point of our changing world. And I believe most of us now realize that climate change is coming for all of us. Now let’s use that as foundation and motivation to change course.

Editor’s Note: Joe Scott has worked on transboundary conservation issues in Washington state and British Columbia for more than three decades, including securing protections for millions of acres of southern B.C.’s Inland Temperate Rainforest, efforts to conserve and recover mountain caribou, and leading the Coast to Cascadse Grizzly Bear Initiative including deep partnerships with area First Nations. 


Lytton, British Columbia before and after July 2021 wildfires.