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Owen Collings and Patsy Gessey outside their house, under construction by MDS volunteers in May 2024. MDS photo/Nikki Hamm GwalaOwen Collings and Patsy Gessey outside their house, under construction by MDS volunteers in May 2024. MDS photo/Nikki Hamm Gwala

Owen Collings and Patsy Gessey outside their house, under construction by MDS volunteers in May 2024. MDS photo/Nikki Hamm Gwala

“It was eerily quiet.”

Lytton, British Columbia, villagers moved as if in slow motion while the temperature climbed to a Canadian record high of 49.6 C/121.3 F. There was hardly an insect or bird in sight. And no wind.

That’s what Owen Collings remembers of the days leading up to a wildfire that flattened his community on June 30, 2021.

At that time, Lytton experienced a weather phenomenon called a heat dome, when a high-pressure system traps hot air over a geographic area like a lid traps air in a pot.

On June 30, the temperature came down and a strong wind picked up.

Collings and his wife Patsy Gessey were across the valley from Lytton, working in Gessey’s market garden, when they saw smoke billowing. The ferry that crosses the Fraser River wasn’t operational at that time due to high water. Collings and Gessey planned to cross at a train bridge for a closer look when they realized that their community was engulfed.

Helicopters were on scene to fight the fire, but high winds made it uncontrollable. Residents had about 15 minutes to evacuate. Collings and Gessey watched their house burn from across the river.

“It was playing out almost like an IMAX movie… It was unreal,” said Collings.

“We just stood over there and looked dumbfounded and traumatized and horrified,” added Gessey.

They overnighted with friends and registered at the Emergency Relief Centre in Lilloet, British Columbia, the next day.

The couple set eyes on their property a month later, after an environmental study was complete. Both Collings and Gessey volunteered to survey the community for personal belongings, while in hazmat suits.

Collings continued to volunteer in this capacity for months afterwards. He was eventually hired by the village of Lytton as an on-site support worker, and relayed updates to community members as a plan for recovery began to take shape.

"Some people have given up… but you’ve stuck with us,"

— Owen Collings

Progress was slow due to a number of complicating factors. Toxic ash needed to be removed. Town records, including the backup copies at a secondary location, had burnt. An archeological survey was required since the village stands on an Indigenous historical site and village officials determined updates to the local building code.

These factors, combined, meant that rebuilding the community would begin more than two years after the fire.

In 2022, Collings and Gessey were referred to Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) by the Red Cross. Gessey reached out to MDS Canada and connected with Gerald Dyck, British Columbia Unit Chair, shortly thereafter. As an organizational response was considered, Dyck took on the role of Lytton Response Co-Coordinator, alongside Mark Rempel.

Dyck and Rempel looked for windows of opportunity to help as factors like town records and building code were worked out. MDS was issued the permit to build Collings and Gessey’s house in March 2024, nearly three years after the fire.

Collings has worked alongside the organization’s volunteers often since house construction began in April.

“I was telling Mark and Gerald… ‘I’m so grateful and thankful that I’m working with you because your organization shows hope… Some people have given up… but you’ve stuck with us’,” he said.

Gessey has offered garden-fresh produce to fuel the volunteer team.

“I’m just so thankful. It’s going to take me a while to get over the wonder of it all,” she said.

In the final week of June, a last trickle of volunteers put the finishing touches on the couple’s new house.

“[This house is] a great relief… We’ve had so many setbacks and disappointments as a community. This house is a positive and concrete,” reflected Collings.

Gessey affirmed, “There’s so much to look forward to.”

Nikki Hamm Gwala, MDS Canada Communications

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