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From smoke to devastation: 23 minutes in Lytton

Twenty-three minutes was all it took for smoke spotted by Lytton mayor to become catastrophic fire

Twenty-three minutes.

Shorter than a shower. Enough to shop for a family. But barely time to run. Almost none.

In that brief sliver of time, Jan Polderman saw the sky’s first blue-grey ugly flags of a possible fire on the south side of Lytton, followed by an immense, billowing blaze targeting Main Street.

In those fleeting moments, what followed was the destruction of homes, livestock, pets, and all the buildings that make a community thrive – the hospital, the RCMP detachment and the grocery store.

Those 23 minutes have turned into 24 hours filled with anguish and adrenaline for a mayor who was only elected in 2018, replacing longtime incumbent Jessoa Lightfoot.

In his tired eyes, underlined by a steady voice, is the culmination of Mayor Polderman’s non-stop communication with B.C. Premier John Horgan, numerous bureaucrats, emergency staff, and nearby mayors offering their support.

It’s conversation perched on a hopeless vantage point of watching a fire raging in his community.

“It was once in a lifetime.”

He offers a small smile from his patio chair out front a friend’s home in Maple Ridge, several hours drive from his home town, at the observation that may feel like the longest and shortest hours of his life.

ALSO READ: ‘People were already fleeing’: Officials hopeful entire Lytton community escaped wildfire

Following three days of record-breaking heat – so high it garnered international media attention – Lytton was seeing some slight reprieve from the oppressive heat preceding the few days before the devasting blaze in Lytton. But the clear, stagnant skies had been replaced with heavy winds.

“I knew that the town was in high peril, so I was making phone calls whether to put on a fire evacuation alert or an actual fire evacuation … got a few conflicting assessments, so I then decided I needed to check out the situation myself.

“When I drove into town … there was fire everywhere.”

He tweeted an evacuation order for the village at 6 p.m. PST.

Footage from residents running to their cars and driving as the smoke filled the skies starkly documented the racing chaos. Some residents estimated it took no less than 15 minutes to reach the town centre. Some were unable to grab little more than their house keys. Others were forced to release their livestock, with only hope they could reach safety.

“When I was going through town, I picked up a guy who had his little cat carrier, he jumped in and he was really upset that he had to leave his dogs behind,” Polderman said.

“On one hand he had his cat and on the other, his house and his dogs were lost.”

FROM THE SKY: Pyrocumulonimbus plumes – aka extreme stormy clouds – forming over B.C. wildfires

Polderman then headed for his house, but the fire had blown across Highway 1 near IR 17 road into the dry vegetation on both sides. A police escort got him home to pick up his wife and dog Finley before heading to Boston Bar. In the rear-view mirror, just flames and smoke.

Being two-hundred kilometres away from his village is gut-wrenching for Polderman, who wants to ensure his community is taken care of, especially as community members are displaced in various areas of the province.

The moment he is given the green light to return – hopefully within a few days – he’ll be on his way. Meanwhile, evacuation centres have been set up in Chilliwack, Boston Bar, Lillooet, Merritt and Kamloops. Efforts are being focussed on who is safe and their locations.

Grimly, RCMP are now searching for a number of residents who remain missing with the possibility some did not make it out alive. Due to the agressive behavior of the fire, Mounties have not yet been able to enter the area to conduct a formal search.

When he thinks about it, emotions choke Polderman, as well as the crush of hopelessness.

“We had all sorts of emergency procedures on hand and we never even had an opportunity to implement it. Basically neighbours knocked on neighbours’ doors and told them to get out and they had 10 minutes, and that was it.”

Premier John Horgan told reporters Thursday that he spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and both committed their support to helping Lytton rebuild.

ALSO READ: Here’s how you can help victims of the devastating Lytton wildfire

But that could be weeks to months away as wildfire crews try to gain control over the growing wildfire, which was burning an estimated 9,000 hectares as of that afternoon.

The idea of rebuilding is right now just a future light of hope for Lytton’s mayor. He’s calling on the Lytton community to be patient as various organizations, including the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, gear up to give direction for the days ahead to evacuees.

“We have to go forward with hope, that’s a given.

“But, the next week or two will be very difficult for those people who have seen their life’s work turned to ashes and the struggle they are going to encounter building their lives.”

ALSO READ: Fleeing flames in Lytton while desperately trying to connect with loved ones


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Aerial view of Lytton after blaze moves through village centre. (BCWS/Twitter)

About the Author: Ashley Wadhwani-Smith

I began my journalistic journey at Black Press Media as a community reporter in my hometown of Maple Ridge, B.C.
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