Poor water access limited early efforts to fight Lytton fire

Wildfire crews draw water from rivers and aren’t impacted by domestic water supply issues, says the B.C. Wildfire Service.

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In the first minutes of the Nohomin Creek wildfire, poor access to water hampered efforts to fight the blaze that would go on to consume several homes on Lytton First Nations’ land, according to Indigenous leaders.

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With the wildfire still burning and a heat wave on the horizon, First Nations in the Fraser Canyon are calling for greater water rights and better access to water for their communities.

“I can only run my garden hose for 20 minutes before I run out of water,” said Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council chairman Matt Pasco, chief of the Oregon Jack Creek Band. “That’s not going to fight any fire.”

Pasco said that when reserves were created, First Nations were pushed onto small tracts of land, while the best land and water rights were given to non-Indigenous people.

“Lytton First Nation doesn’t have enough water to truly fight fire,” he said.

On Thursday, as the recently ignited Nohomin Creek fire raced through the dry forests west of Lytton, farmer Daniel Mundall used a water tanker to help extinguish some of the flames, saving two of his neighbour’s homes.

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As people rallied to fight the fire, it moved across his family’s land, Earlscourt Farm, destroying a barn, shop and honey processing building, before moving north to Lytton First Nation where it burned six homes.

People had no water to fight the flames, he said: “The water system is dependent on power, but the power had been knocked out.”

Timing is critical in the early minutes of a fire, the farmer continued: “The thing about Lytton is the wind. You’ve got a 15- to 20-minute window to do something.”

John Haugen, deputy chief of the Lytton First Nation, said his community is still in shock. The community was heavily impacted by last year’s Lytton Creek fire, with more than 30 homes destroyed in that blaze. Many people are living in hotels.

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“They’re doing the best they can,” he said.

Haugen said water access is an issue in the community for various reasons. While there is a backup generator for the pump that moves water from the Stein River, homes are still “heavily dependent” on power for water.

B.C. Hydro spokeswoman Susie Rieder said the plant providing residential water supply to Lytton is out-of-service due to the fire. Flames destroyed 53 poles, three transformer banks and two transformers.

“We’re working to repair the line now and are facing some challenges,” she said. “We have been using helicopters to fly material into the site and plan to begin construction in the coming days.”

Domestic water supply issues haven’t impacted wildfire crews.

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“Wildfire suppression water supply is not dependent on domestic use water supply,” said Nicole Bonnett, a fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service. “There is plenty of water accessible from the Fraser River and other drainages in key areas that the crews are working in.”

On Friday, the fire on the west side of the river had grown to about 22 square kilometres. More than 100 personnel have been assigned to the fire, backed by 10 helicopters and other support crews, according to the wildfire service.

“The anticipated warming and drying trend, in combination with the extremely steep terrain, has influenced fire behaviour,” said a post updated Friday morning. “Planned ignitions may be utilized as early as today to remove fuel between the fire and pre-identified natural control lines.”

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Environment Canada’s forecast for Lytton predicts daytime highs of 37 C on Wednesday and Thursday. The wildfire service is expecting increased fire activity as a result, creating “potentially volatile conditions during peak burning times.”

A sprinkler system has been installed along a walking path in the Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park. Wildfire personnel are working with a representative from the Lytton First Nation to identify areas of cultural value, while “structure protection assessment and triaging” remains ongoing for properties and buildings in the area, said the update. “This continues to be proactive work in the event of an increase in fire activity and growth in the direction of structures as a result of the warming and drying trend.”

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Haugen said the fire has slowed on the northern flank, although strong winds forecast for Friday afternoon, as well as rising temperatures, have people on edge.

“As long as they’re able to put out those hot, aggressive parts of the fire, we should be in good stead.”

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