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Minister considered disbanding Lytton's municipal government due to rebuilding struggles

BC's Emergency Management and Climate Readiness Minister declines to apologize for delays in rebuilding fire-hit village

Nearly three years after Lytton’s devastating fire, building has only begun on a handful of homes. Minister of Environment Management and Climate Readiness Bowinn Ma says changes have been made to avoid some of the issues that have plagued the village’s rebuilding efforts. 📸 Tyler Olsen/BC Legislature

This story first appeared in the May 22, 2024, edition of the Fraser Valley Current newsletter. Subscribe for free to get Fraser Valley news in your email every weekday morning.

BC’s Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness declined to apologize for her government’s handling of the rebuilding of Lytton, but Bowinn Ma did acknowledge that provincial regulations hindered Victoria’s ability to push forward rebuilding efforts after Lytton’s devastating fire.

Ma told The Current that upon assuming leadership of her new ministry in December of 2022, she considered dissolving the Village of Lytton to allow the province to take over rebuilding efforts, instead of relying on the municipality.

She said the election of a new council forestalled such a move, but that the province has since moved to give itself the power to take over rebuilding efforts in small communities, if local governments aren’t up to the task.

You can read a transcription of the interview below. FVC Insider members can listen to the interview via a link below.

Hi FVC Insider member! Thanks for supporting The Current and our journalism. Here’s a link to the audio of our interview.

The Current first requested an interview with a government politician about the rebuilding Lytton in April. FVC has reported exhaustively on the challenges associated with rebuilding and why it has taken so long. Those issues include weather, more fires, archeological discoveries, and a lack of capacity at the Village of Lytton. Some of those problems were out of the province’s hands. But others stemmed from provincial rules, policies, laws, and involvement in disaster recovery. We wanted to know if the province would apologize for how long rebuilding has taken, whether it has confronted the role its policies have played in those delays, and whether it has taken steps to ensure that communities facing future disasters don’t encounter the same obstacles.

The province suggested an interview with Bowinn Ma, BC’s Minister of Emergency Management, would be most appropriate. Ma was appointed minister in December of 2022, about 18 months after Lytton burned down. Previously, emergency management had been handled by the Minister of Public Affairs, Mike Farnworth. We interviewed Farnworth just weeks before Ma’s appointment, although that discussion chiefly centred around flood preparation and prevention.

We gave the ministry a flexible timeline. Asked how much time it would take, we requested up to an hour—about half an hour for Lytton issues, and another half-hour to discuss other emergency management topics including those concerning flooding in the Fraser Valley. In early May, the ministry’s communication staff said a 15-minute interview was possible before June. It was suggested more time might be available at another date. Although the lack of time limited the number of questions we could ask, Ma acknowledged that Lytton’s post-fire experience revealed a major flaw in the province’s recovery game plan.

FVC: I understand we've got relatively limited time, so I'm just gonna hop into it here, so we make best use of our time. I won't beat around the bush too much. So to start, what would you say to somebody who is worried about wildfires today and who, looking at Lytton, might doubt that the provincial government will be there to help when they need it most?

Ma: Certainly the Village of Lytton situation is, well—I want to acknowledge what a challenge it has been for community members to rebuild In Lytton. It is about three years now since the fire, and we are seeing some progress, but that progress is relatively recent, a lot of community members are frustrated. And I know that folks who might be worried about this happening to their communities are wondering, well, what might happen if we were going through that.

Recovery for communities is really context driven. The experience will be different for every community, for a number of reasons, largely because it depends on what's actually happened in the disaster, what the damage looks like. It will depend a lot on how the local government wants to rebuild, or if they're capable of rebuilding and leading that rebuild, and what kind of support they're looking for from the province. There are a lot of factors at play for sure.

FVC: Is your government willing to apologize for how long it’s taken rebuilding to take place?

Ma: I think that there's a lot of lessons to be learned from what happened over in the village of Lytton. And certainly, we're taking those lessons into account and I'm glad to be able to share that going forward we are actually—well, maybe we can get into a little bit of context, if that's all right, Tyler?

FVC: Sure. I’m pretty familiar with it, but you can go ahead.

Ma: I know, I understand. It's just the way that I'm answering the questions and feels like I'm kind of jumping in part way without really providing any baseline information.

So what happened in the Village Lytton—when people ask me, ‘Why is it taking so long for rebuild in the Village of Lytton,’ I think some of it is based on on the very real situation on the ground. Right. It is factually the case that there was incredible environmental damage caused by the fire. It is the case that the village was built on top of an ancient Indigenous village and burial site, which meant that we anticipated finding quite a significant level of archaeological artifacts in the area. It is also the case that the Village of Lytton’s destruction was complete in ways that we had never seen before in this province—you know, municipal infrastructure, town halls, all of their records, and it happened to a relatively small community as well.

And so there are a number of factors that led to the village being very difficult to rebuild. But I would say, of those that we could have controlled, would have been the process through which the rebuild happened. So the province has been operating off of an interim disaster recovery framework that we adopted in 2019. That was based on a community-led recovery model. It was based on the idea that local governments, being the closest to the community, were in the best position to lead recovery they were in the best position to set the pace to set the direction, to set priorities, because it was believed that, [if] you have a small town in a rural part of the province, the spirit and the heart of what it means to be that town can't be reproduced by somebody sitting in Victoria working off their side of their desk, it has to mean something to the community itself. So the local leadership should be the ones to to take that lead, and we would provide a supporting role: that was the basis of the interim disaster recovery framework, and it was based on an internationally recognized approach. Up until then, it was really considered the gold-standard approach to have this community-led approach.

But what it meant was that the province could pile financial supports behind behind the village, we could provide access to to public servants, we could stand up teams at the provincial level to provide subject matter expertise, but we could not reach as far as actually making decisions for the community—we could not make the decisions to set the pace, set the direction set the priorities. We could do everything up until that point, and we did as can be shown by the financial investment that the province has committed to so far and transferred over to the to the community. It can be seen by how many resources the province actually had, how many public servants on the province’s side was actually involved in the Lytton file. But under the community-led model, it wasn't the province’s place to intervene on the decision-making process. And I think that's the biggest lesson that we had to learn from this: that there are in fact cases where the community-led model just does not work.

Now, it does work in many, many situations. In Merritt, it's working really well. It's working well in Princeton. In Grand Forks, it was really important there. So in a lot of disaster-recovery situations that community-led model was the way to go. But what happens when you have a village like Lytton, a village where the decision-making capacity, and the ability for the government to function is in question. The province actually ended up financing the village operations so that the municipality could continue to exist throughout the last several years.

Now, I would say that things have changed drastically in the last year and a half or so, largely with the new mayor and the new council, really, really focused in on the work, worked with the province, hired up a couple of high-capacity, recovery managers and have really taken the bull by the horns. And we've seen a lot of great progress, then.

I think a lesson for the province to learn—and we have—is that that community-led model, it doesn't work for all situations. So we've actually just recently, earlier this month, adopted a new disaster recovery framework that uses a community-endorsed model. What that means is, depending on the recovery—on the disaster situation, and the level of recovery required, and the context within which that recovery is happening—it is possible for the province to actually take that extra step and provide decision-making leadership.

Now, it's not going to happen in all cases. There'll be lots of cases where the community is perfectly capable, and would prefer and has the capacity in all the ways that capacity matters to be able to lead the recovery. But in those Village of Lytton-type cases, we've got a few more options under our belt to use.

FVC: I appreciate you taking that apart, because that's kind of what I've seen. I’m through Lytton very regularly, and I've obviously covered this a lot, and that's the most obvious kind of takeaway that you can take. And it seems good that the province has understood and learned some lessons from what's going on. But just why has it taken this long for the province to move on that? I say this because you could see this a year and a half ago or two years ago when you went through Lytton and you'd see, in the middle of the day, nobody actually working on the site. And it seemed pretty obvious then that something needed to be done, and whatever processes were in place weren't working. Yet nothing seemed to, at least to the outside observers, at least to a lot of residents, nothing seemed to happen immediately.

So can you speak to why it took a while for that problem to be perceived? And what would you say to a community member who wants to hear an apology or something akin to an apology for that delay?

Ma: What I would say is that the frequency and the scale and the scope of disasters has been growing quite rapidly here in British Columbia.

Prior to 2021, disasters were really seen as something that happened once in a while in British Columbia. You would have communities that would have to stand up their emergency operations centers, the province would spin up Emergency Management BC, and we would provide focused, time-limited support. And then the disaster would be over, Emergency Management BC would spin down, the community would have probably suffered a bit of damage—not total complete damage, like the kind that we saw in Lytton.

And then we—the province generally, like British Columbians—would kind of move on. But with climate change, we're seeing things change very quickly. The weather is getting more extreme. We're seeing hotter summers, drier summers, we're seeing more extreme flooding situations. Extreme heat, extreme cold, we've got deadly avalanches now. We've got ice bombs happening in the winter. And this is largely the reason that drove Premier David Eby to create the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness.

And we're coming up to about a year-and-a-half-old now. We were created in December of 2022. That was in recognition of the fact that we could no longer manage emergencies off the side of our desks anymore—not at the provincial level, not at the local level, not at the federal level. Personal emergency preparedness was no longer an option for British Columbians. It's something that we really need to push people to. So that recognition, I think, culminated in the development of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness as a ministry. And we transitioned Emergency Management BC from a response-focused organization into a full four-phase emergency management organization. That means not just response, but also preparation, mitigation. And yes, recovery too. So recovery is a type of work that's actually quite new for the province and new for many of our communities, too. And it's something that we are learning to develop our own capacity on as quickly as possible.

A staff member intervened to say time was up, or nearly up.

FVC: Can I have one more question?

Ma: Sure

FVC: Speaking to what you just spoke to, but also going back to my question: does the ministry have more people on the ground? Does it need and does it have the people on the ground today that it didn’t have two years ago to … have somebody in Lytton on a regular, basically daily or weekly basis, to be able to provide that input that things aren’t happening in the way that folks in Victoria may hope or think or want them to be proceeding?

Ma: So I'll give you a two part answer. One is yes. EMCR is substantially larger now as a ministry than EMBC was. We actually increased our full-time staff and complement by 40% over the last year in order to support communities across the province in all of the aspects of disaster preparation, mitigation, response and recovery that that may be needed.

On the Village of Lytton in particular, I have to emphasize that the province actually had quite a substantial, dedicated team committed to the Village of Lytton rebuild the entire time. And those individuals were reporting that there were substantial challenges. But under the community-led approach, we attempted to resolve those challenges through any means possible while respecting that local authority’s authority. So that intervention on decision-making, and priority-setting, we never quite got there.

But we tried everything else. We tried to stand up resources behind them, we tried to offer more financial support, we provided advice on the kinds of people that they needed to hire that we would pay for. But until government adjusted that disaster-recovery framework, we couldn't quite reach it far enough.

Now, I will say, when my ministry was created, Lytton was one of the files that I really jumped on in terms of my focus and attention, because of course, it had taken quite a long time. And there was a period of time early on in my time as Minister when I was flirting with the idea of actually having the province take that step and really exploring what it would mean for us to take over with the tools that were available to us at that time. Which might have meant might have included considering actually dissolving the municipality so that the province could take a greater leadership role on that.

But the new mayor and council really stepped up. And we started to see progress in a way that we hadn't seen before. And so it was deemed that they're in a position, they're in a good place now, and they're now capable to lead that recovery. And so we didn't take those more drastic steps.

Under the new emergency and disaster management act that was passed just last November, there actually is a tool in there called a multi-jurisdictional emergency management organization. And in the legislation, it gives me as minister the power to request or require a community to join up with all their communities and the province in a joint emergency management organization.

And that kind of organization could be chaired by the province, which would effectively allow us to take a stronger leadership role on recovery. But again, we don't want to do that in all cases. There are a lot of communities like Merritt who are perfectly capable of providing that direction. They have the leadership, we have the resources, the resources and expertise, the capacity, they have the drive. So we want the community to lead in all of the ways that they possibly can. But if we get into another situation, like a village, where another village is faced with such a catastrophic level of destruction, we have more legislative tools available to us … than we did before.


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