April 25, 2024

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Canada’s Devastating Fires Force Seasonal Businesses Into an Uncertain Future

9 min read

Before the fire, Lytton, British Columbia, was the kind of tiny town visitors alighted upon mid-road trip, pulling off the Trans-Canada Highway to get a drink, or take in views of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, running slate gray and deep blue more than 200 feet below. A mile up the road, also known as Highway 1, Kumsheen Rafting Resort drew 8,000 visitors annually to take half-day trips on raging rapids. Backpackers heading out on the Stein Valley Traverse stopped at the grocery store — known to locals as Ken Mart, after its owner, Ken Wong — to pick up rope, ramen and fuel before they hit the trail.

Then, Lytton burned down in the space of an afternoon.

It was June 30, 2021, the day after the town’s — and Canada’s — hottest ever recorded temperature: 121 degrees Fahrenheit. Fire claimed Ken Mart (officially Jade Springs Grocery) and its Chinese restaurant, along with the Lytton Hotel with its restaurant and pub, the bank, the police station, the health clinic, and all but a handful of the more than 100 homes and businesses, along with a few dozen more along the highway and on the nearby Lytton First Nation.

Two residents were killed in the blaze. Others evacuated to larger towns and cities like Vancouver, three hours away. Lytton joined Paradise and Greenville, Calif., along with Detroit, Ore., in a category that would come to include Lahaina, Hawaii: picturesque towns, loved by residents and travelers alike, destroyed by wildfire.

Kumsheen lost 1 million Canadian dollars ($740,000) in rafting equipment; nearly all its tent cabins went up in smoke, too. But when Andrew Fandrich, who runs the business with his parents, saw that the shop and office building remained standing, he thought, “We can still operate.” Their closest competitor, HYAK River Rafting, was destroyed completely — and uninsured.

Days after the fire, John Horgan, then the premier of British Columbia, promised to help Lytton become a model “in how we build a community for the future.” Pledges from the provincial and federal governments to clean up and rebuild public facilities and infrastructure soon ran to 115 million dollars — an outlay at a scale that will not be possible for every town damaged or destroyed by climate change.

Yet more than two years after the fire, Lytton still looks less like a town than a parking lot with a view. People — much less tourists — have been elusive.

Lytton was just another dot on the map for the millions of visitors who venture to British Columbia each year. But as fires and extreme weather events continue to scramble tourists’ itineraries, wallets and imaginations, Lytton has become a microcosm of a now-worldwide challenge — climate change as an unpredictable and complex new variable in the math that sustains seasonal businesses.

Lytton’s economy followed a familiar trajectory for the rural West, from gold rush to railways, lumber, and finally, government services and seasonal tourism, built around the area’s evergreen forests and rivers. Though Lytton had an aging population and a shrinking tax base — roughly 200 people lived in town before the fire — the village has long served as a hub for a much larger area: More than 10 times that number, including members of nearby First Nations communities, relied on Lytton for services that are otherwise close to an hour away.

Hikers, fishermen and other visitors sustained the small businesses, primarily from May to September. Bus tours brought visitors from Europe and Asia seeking lunch, postcards and knickknacks. Geocaching enthusiasts spent their weekends logging exploits in scavenger hunts, aided by volunteers from the Gold Country Communities Society nonprofit that supports area tourism.

“If our motels and gas stations and restaurants all closed overnight, there wouldn’t be much left here,” said Wendy Comber, the group’s chair, who lives in nearby Cache Creek. Now, Ms. Comber said, the joke is that Cache Creek is “the disaster capital of the world.” The visitor center sees half as many drop-ins as it did a few years ago.

Jewel Rice, who with her husband owns Hilltop Gardens, a roadside farm stand a half-hour drive north of Lytton, said business never recovered from the Elephant Hill fire in 2017, when they were cut off from the highway for more than two months.

Then debris flows after the Lytton fire closed two local campgrounds, Ms. Rice said, and made the itinerary less appealing — campers would have to drive an extra hour to find a place. Now, she said, “people just aren’t coming our way.”

British Columbia is larger than California, Oregon and Washington combined, with tourist destinations that range from one of North America’s largest ski resorts (Whistler Blackcomb) to tiny surf spots on Vancouver Island; tourism brings in billions of dollars a year and accounts for roughly one in every 30 jobs in the province. Even in the midst of historic wildfire seasons, outdoor attractions — British Columbia features more than 1,000 provincial parks and preserves — experienced a surge in visitors. More than seven million acres burned in 2023, more than double the record set in 2018, but stays at provincial campgrounds were up by 16 percent over the same period.

While the choice to live and work somewhere can take years, tourists can afford to be flexible, changing plans or canceling them outright.

At Kumsheen’s rafting business, young people from overseas have long been drawn to its seasonal jobs. Elliot Eden, a British-born operations manager, arrived a decade ago, a ski bum looking for summertime work. In 2021, before the fire, he had been looking to put down roots in Lytton, maybe buy a home. But after the fire, while he and his colleagues shoveled maggots and rotting food from the walk-in refrigerator, his dream of settling down seemed hard to hold. Even if the town is rebuilt, he said, “Your brain is telling you, ‘is that really going to be a good investment?’”

Tricia Thorpe, a local politician, had a home that burned down.

“You end up dreading summer because it’s fire season,” she said. “You used to get so excited like, ‘Yay — summer vacation!’ And now you think, ‘It’s fire season, I better prepare.’”

Walt Judas hates that term, fire season. He is the chief executive of the Tourism Industry Association of British Columbia.

“Because it implies that all of British Columbia is on fire,” he said, discouraging travel even to places unaffected by smoke and closures. He cited a strategy created by the city of Penticton, whose @VisitPenticton Instagram account began featuring posts of blue skies and sunny promenades with a date, a time stamp and the slogan “Real Time.”

Over the past three years, the provincial parks department has received more than 83 million dollars to expand offerings and catch up on deferred maintenance. In addition to repairing damage from extreme weather, explained George Heyman, British Columbia’s minister of environment and climate change strategy, the agency is trying to anticipate it.

“We’re looking at parks and recreational areas and trying to assess them for climate adaptation before something happens,” he said.

Rebuilding is often slow. In California, even with more than a billion U.S. dollars of public funds, the version of Paradise that has grown up five years after the Camp fire is less than a third the size of the old town. In Lytton, former residents are desperate to see the town’s center of gravity re-established; it’s a lot harder to get R.V.s and backpackers to stop and linger with their dollars if there’s nowhere to spend them.

The cleanup, undertaken by a series of contractors working through the provincial government, has advanced to a crawl, exacerbated by conflict in the village government.

Lorna Fandrich, Andrew’s mother, said businesses need to come back, quickly, singling out the need for a grocery store and even one restaurant to return downtown. “People say that it’s because they’d like to eat out and take out food, but mostly, it’s because they want a place to visit.”

Ms. Fandrich is working to rebuild the small Lytton Chinese History Museum she founded in 2017, even if rebuilding costs twice as much, and the artifacts she features aren’t from Lytton proper this time. It will most likely take one to two years.

But the longer this uncertainty hangs over Lytton’s eventual rebuilding, the wider the gap between the Lytton that was and the Lytton that will be. The owners of the Lytton
Hotel have relocated to the Vancouver area; the site where the Totem Motel once stood is set to be redeveloped as housing.

“People spread to the four corners of the universe,” Jan Polderman, who was then the mayor, recalled of the days and weeks after the fire. Many still haven’t found permanent housing. Pierre Quevillon, a contractor who lived in Lytton for more than 30 years, has been staying in a motel on the highway. Nkixwstn James, a tribal elder whose house was uninsured, landed in a retirement home an hour away. She vows to come back even if it means putting up a tepee. “I’m going to use the kind of house that my ancestors used to settle in,” she said.

Some services have returned, haphazardly: The police detachment relocated to where the health clinic had been, and the Lytton First Nation set up a grocery store two miles away. Still, Mr. Polderman lamented, it’s hard to rebuild without a town to rely on. “Have you found a place in town here to get a drink of water?” he asked. “Have you found a place to eat here in town? Have you found a place to sleep here in town?”

I hadn’t. I was renting a tent cabin a mile away at Kumsheen, where the town’s bank, too, had taken refuge, creating a branch in a shipping container.

Kumsheen celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, but not a return to normal. It was down to 20 percent of its usual revenue of 1.5 million dollars in 2020, the summer of the pandemic, then 30 percent during the shortened summer of the fire. After a lackluster 2022, Ms. Fandrich said, “We thought this was going to our first normal year.” Then, in August, a month that usually accounts for nearly half their annual income, the area once again fell under wildfire evacuation orders and road closures. To avoid layoffs, they cut staff hours by a third.

Ms. Fandrich was grateful that the core of the business was still intact, and that insurance payments had allowed them to replace much of what they’d lost. But it wasn’t a stretch they could sustain. “It seems we have some kind of dilemma every year now,” she said. To meet insurance premiums of 70,000 dollars, “you have to sell a lot of raft trips.”

Lytton issued its first permit for a resident to rebuild last October: Lillian Graie, a former village councilor, managed to get started with a new foundation before winter set in. Though her home is gone, Ms. Graie said the things that made her move to Lytton in 2019, are still there.

“There’s mountains, river, forest,” she said. “It’s just dang gorgeous.” She’s confident people will want to come — it’s also cheaper than the coastal sprawl near Vancouver.

“If the space is there, someone will fill it,” she said. “It’s like water in cup.”

I spent my last morning floating down the Thompson River on one of the Fandriches’ rafts, with two anglers visiting from Vancouver Island. Over two hours, we saw bald eagles, and a black bear ambled along the shoreline. It was easy to see the appeal of Lytton’s majestic setting, still much intact.

“We don’t want to capitalize on a community’s misfortune by overtly promoting another part of the province,” said Mr. Judas, of the tourism association. But some reshuffling is inevitable. Tourists may always want to visit British Columbia, but driving up Highway 1 is a choice. Every road-tripper needs reasons to pull over.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2024.



Rowan Moore Gerety

2024-03-12 09:03:49

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