Rebuilding Lytton brings unexpected challenges, says Kelowna-based CAO | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Rebuilding Lytton brings unexpected challenges, says Kelowna-based CAO

Former Kelowna city manager Ron Mattiussi is overseeing the rebuilding of Lytton.
Image Credit: FILE PHOTO

Facing the massive task of orchestrating the rebuilding of Lytton starts with a number of smaller challenges.

“We’re moving forward but it’s complicated,” Ron Mattiussi, former manager of the City of Kelowna and current acting CAO of Lytton, told “Sometimes the silliest little things are a lot harder than somebody may think, like getting someone answering the phone.”

Most of the Village of Lytton was destroyed when a wildfire ripped through it on June 30.

READ MORE: 90% of Lytton destroyed by fire, injuries reported

Efforts were being made to clean up and rebuild since then but it wasn’t until Mattiussi was recruited to set up a recovery team a few weeks ago that those efforts became more focused.

He recently took over as acting CAO after the existing CAO, a young Lytton woman just learning the job, went off on leave. She was the one answering the village phone and it was a challenge to find a replacement.

Mattiussi fully understands why the recovery efforts got off to a slow start.

“We can’t underestimate the fact that the people trying to fix it were also people who experienced the trauma, and the council had experienced the trauma,” Mattiussi said. “Sometimes, like a hockey team, when you feel frustrated, everybody tries to score the goal themselves and nobody passes the puck and, I think, there was a bit of that going on. A lot was being done. It just wasn’t necessarily stuff that people could see and that caused some frustration.”

What Mattiussi brought to the job was 23 years with the City of Kelowna, starting as planning director in 1995. He spent 12 years as City Manager before retiring in the spring of 2018.

He was acting city manager with the city when the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire destroyed 239 homes in Kelowna.

“What I was able to bring was experience of local government and experience of emergency management,” Mattiussi said. “Being the old timer that I am, I also knew people in provincial government so it was a lot easier for me to pick up the phone and speak to somebody that I had worked with in the past and say, this is what we really need.”

READ MORE: Kelowna's city manager lends an experienced hand with Fort Mac recovery efforts

The village not only lost its office but all its records. Their backups were offsite but still in Lytton so those were also destroyed.

Some of the unseen work being done in the early months was to recover and reconstruct that information, some of which was available online.

Only 200 of 700 bylaws have been restored, although about 400 of the old bylaws probably should have been purged long ago, Mattiussi said.

Since there is no office, staff members are working out of Boston Bar. Council meetings are held in Kamloops and via Zoom.

Mattiussi is doing most of his work from his home in Kelowna.

“There are virtually no records and virtually no Village,” Mattiussi said. “The Village is a virtual Village.”

There were 102 homes destroyed along with most businesses and institutional buildings in a town that was the hub for a large area.

Just getting rid of the debris is the biggest challenge at the moment.

Unlike the Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire where only homes were destroyed, the fact that commercial and industrial buildings burned means there are more hazardous materials around, meaning more precautions have to be taken during the cleanup. Asbestos is also a big challenge.

While insurance companies pay to have debris removed, about 40% of the homeowners were uninsured so efforts are being coordinated to try to remove all their debris as well.

There are also culturally sensitive sites that require care. Some were known to the community but others may surface as the cleanup progresses.

The hope is that monitors in the village will be able to cordon off the culturally sensitive sites so the rest of the debris can be quickly removed.

“Everything is now in place to do the work,” Mattiussi said. “It can be done in November, theoretically.”

If all goes well, rebuilding may be able to start in the spring.

READ MORE: No evidence freight train set off wildfire in Lytton, B.C.: safety board

The sewage treatment plant was not damaged by the fire. The roads and underground servicing seem to be intact but may need some repairs. Some wells were impacted so work needs to be done there.

About 30 homes were not touched by the fire but getting potable water to them is still a priority.

Another priority is a draft building and demolition bylaw that still needs public input and a new Official Community Plan will need to be written quickly.

One of the controversies within the community is Village council wants Lytton to become a “model” city for energy sufficiency while insurance companies are not willing to pay for more than what was lost.

Interim housing, such as manufactured homes, is also being considered so people have a place to live for the year or two it will take to rebuild. There will also be the challenge of finding workers to travel to the village to do that building as there is already a labour shortage in the construction industry.

And a lot depends on what the residents and former residents want – whether they want to return, whether they want to live in interim housing and whether they are willing to return before things like grocery stores and health care services are in place.

A grocery store is essential, not only for the village itself but for the service area, yet it’s unclear what comes first, the store or the customers. Many of Lytton’s businesses were struggling before the fire because of COVID.

The whole process of rebuilding an entire community is highly unusual and challenging.

“The provincial government has received some criticism but, in fairness to them, the whole system is predicated on local government self-sufficiency and the provincial and federal governments providing support,” Mattiussi said. “We’re not like the U.S. where the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the county and everybody parachutes in and they fight with each other while everyone tries to get out of New Orleans.

“Here, it’s a very bottom-up system which works really well 99% of the time. But, when the local government structure collapses, all of a sudden, there’s a bit of a problem.”

Mattiussi has held a number of temporary CAO jobs in places like Summerland and Grand Forks since he “retired” but this looks to be a longer term posting.

“Part of the role is to build my long term replacement,” he said, adding that he hopes the previous CAO returns to work.

First up, though, is getting all that debris removed.

“It’s really important for us to see tangible signs,” Mattiussi said. “We removed the metal roof from the medical centre last week. We knew there was no asbestos in the building because it was a fairly new building. Even that was a visible sign that something was happening.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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