BCMA Climate Action Podcast Series EP04: BC HERN's Salvage Trip to Lytton, BC

This is a transcript of part two of the conversation with BC HERN in episode 4 of the BCMA Climate Action Podcast. Click below to listen to the recording.

Published November 16th, 2021

Tanya: Welcome to the BC Museum Association’s, Climate Action and Leadership Network podcast series. This is part two of our conversation with Tara and Heidi from BC HERN, the British Columbia Heritage Emergency Response Network. This past summer of 2021 saw temperatures across Canada reaching unprecedented records that led to hundreds of wildfires across the country. The Lytton wildfires were one of, if not the most destructive disasters to befall a BC Museum in our living memory. In July, thousands of the Lytton area were evacuated from their homes, some with as little as 15 minutes notice. The village of Lytton and the Lytton First Nation suffered unimaginable losses.

Tara and Heidi were among the team at BC HERN to assist the Lytton Chinese Heritage Museum and the Lytton Museum and Archives with post-fire salvage and recovery. In this episode, we hear about their experience.

Heidi and Tara and their team were among a team that went to recover what remained of the Lytton Chinese History Museum. Heidi and Tara both assisted in the post-fire salvage and recovery. This was the largest operation that BC HERN’s history has had, and just to begin, I thought Heidi and Tara, would you like to share a little bit about what it was like to be there and to experience Lytton after the fires?


Tara: Thank you, Tanya. My experience with trying to salvage and recover after the fires that devastated the village of Lytton, I’m sure aren’t unique to the team or to other people, but truthfully, it’s been a few weeks and I am still sort of processing it. I’d have to say it started with stunned silence as we entered the site, just taking in the destruction, it really clouded the entire first day for me.

Heidi and I went and had an assessment trip. It was just two days, one night assessment to determine what our resources were going to be, what was required, what we thought we could accomplish, et cetera. I went to sleep with that memory of the black landscape, just this charcoal scorched devastated landscape.

Then next day, I started to be able to see a little bit past that. And I was awed by the organizational procedures that had been put in place like security, safety, the safety protocols, because the site at the village of Lytton was contaminated with asbestos and heavy metals there was really strict protocols to provide for our safety, which was fantastic. And that was where my focus went to was what other people are doing to organize themselves as a learning opportunity for me and for us. I found that’s where my focus shifted, so I was able to put the devastation beside me for a minute while I focused. And maybe that was just a self-preservation technique, I don’t know, but that’s where I focused. And then, so then we got a game plan together and we’re revisiting and we started to actually go down into the salvage area. We’d take ladders down into the basements of the places we were recovering from, like the Lytton Chinese Heritage Museum and the Lytton Museum and Archives.

And as Heidi alluded to, in part one [of the podcast], once that happened, it was an no brainer professionally, we just kicked in to doing what we do, which is try to ensure the long-term preservation of cultural heritage. So, my focus just became salvage. What can I fix? What can I get? What can I recover? What do I see? So even how you, how I viewed it from above the ground. I viewed distorted, charred shelving units. When I was there, down in the process, I was viewing, ‘oh, that’s the remains of a three-ring binder. Oh, that’s the remains of a display case. Maybe there’s an item there. Oh, that’s the tip of a teapot now I’d be careful’. So, the visual even changed to what are we sifting through and what are we looking at? The experience was really layered, just like the whole process. And I’m sure it was different for Heidi, but it was really destructive that, that blackness afterwards. I think because it was so long after the fire, there was, I didn’t notice very much of a smell, a burnt smell, and I think that would have really tipped the scales emotionally, but as it was, I think for me, the striking loss was the ground and the earth that had just been devastated.


Heidi: I think the one thing that you mentioned Tara was the fact that it was so long after the fire. So, we were able to gain access to the site three months after the initial event. And for me, that was one of the hardest things to understand; why it took so long for salvage to actually take place, and the huge learning curve that we were put on when we went down this road it was so valuable and it’s going to really inform the future training that we develop for the network. But we had been in touch with the custodians of the collections, the keepers of the collections since very early days after the fire, both directly, and also with the assistance of the BCMA.

And there was so much we don’t know yet what we can do. We don’t know what’s happening. There’s no information. We don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know. And we put it away for a while, thinking that hopefully, eventually we’ll be able to help. And then almost three months to the day later, we were finally put in touch with this amazing organization called Team Rubicon Canada, who had been there since the beginning and their mandate, I think, is to assist individual homeowners with the salvage of their belongings. But they weren’t quite equipped to help with the salvage of larger collections. So, we teamed up and it turned out to be perfect because without their help, we wouldn’t have been able to get access to the site because as Tara alluded to, there was a lot of contamination, in association with that, a lot of attention to safety, security, personal protective equipment. And it was up and beyond anything that we had ever experienced ourselves.

And, as Tara said, I absolutely agree. The, when you, when we went into the site for the first time, it was before many homeowners even had access to that site and you felt immediately a sense of despair, sadness. It was absolutely gutting as we drove through the very small town, because there was nothing, absolutely nothing except chimney all over the place and quite remarkably sunflowers are growing everywhere. But other than that, it was Ash and exposed basement after exposed basement, with ash and debris in between. But you have to keep working. So, I think for me, by the second day, it’s hard to believe it, that almost became normalized. And each day that we entered the site after that we just pass through it all and got to work. But then we worked with each of the owners, or keepers of those collections and we saw them experience it for the first or second time going back to those sites. And we saw the different team members that we brought in, experience it again for the first time. And we had to watch them be gutted and then we trained them up and then they were just like us. It was like, okay, let’s get to work now. And I think that’s an experience that will guide us for a very long time.

And I think the big lesson that comes out of it for me was how different the fire will treat different locations. So, you have a varying degree of intensity of that fire depending on where it lands and the pathway that it takes. So, some of the sites we were working on, we were able to recover a good deal of material, I think more than anybody had expected, but other sites absolutely much less so. Only really the most compact, small, stable materials survived the fire and otherwise very little was left, but even in that, it’s still helped us. And the owners of those sites find some closure. I think, to know that everything that could have been found was found.


Tanya: Can you talk a little bit about that process and share what that was like working with those people and on those sites and share a little bit of an update on how they were doing and what that process is like?


Tara: Working with the custodians of each collection, the Chinese Museum and the Lytton Museum and Archives, they were two different scenarios because the players involved and the interested parties had different vested interests. They had different levels of preparedness as well, but the Chinese Museum, they were a fairly recent build. They were in a four-year-old building and their basement was quite deep. Because of that, my understanding is that the, it was almost at the, in the basement, it was almost insulated because of its depth. But the person I talked to that was a retired fireman, said that because of that insulation and depth, we might find more. And in fact, he was right.

Working with them because they don’t have the experience to actually salvage that we did they would remain up on the ground level, close to the foundation of their building. And we would find something and recover it or get it out of the rubble and the ash, and then try to carefully get it over to where they could then tell us from their perspective, was this important enough for us to deal with or go more for, in that area to look, to expand ourselves operations for things like that? Or was this item an example of something that is collected elsewhere, that they could purchase again, that they could recover somewhere else or get a duplicate. Having their custodians involvement was essential because we had a timeframe. We had a very tight time limit because we were told that within a few days after we leave, they’re going to bulldoze the village and basically say here, ‘you’ve got X amount of days to salvage as much as you can’ so their involvement was essential in determining what we spend time trying to salvage and what we didn’t. There was also, our expertise was involved in trying to say to them here, ‘I’ve got this item it’s damaged, but it’s recoverable’ or ‘it’s damaged and frankly, it’s not that recoverable, your efforts would be spent elsewhere’.

So, we really had to prioritize our efforts in conjunction with their value judgments. So almost everything went through that process where here’s what we’re finding. Here’s a piece. The owner is saying, ‘oh, that piece, that pattern is very important in China’ or ‘that’s part of an opium collection. If there’s any more in that area, it would be fantastic’.

So that really helped hone and fine tune our efforts and speed the process along.


Heidi: It was so important to have that guidance because there’s two different things going on when you’re working down on the site. One is you’re so heavily layered with gloves and you’re wearing goggles and respirators. You can’t, you can see what you’re doing, but maybe not the finer details of what the individual piece is. But also, it gets dangerous when you start making value judgments down without the guidance of the person who knows best.

So, one, one lovely example that I keep telling is the story about the small fragment of a teacup that I found when I was working down in the foundation and it was a fragment of a piece, but on that fragment, it had this really beautiful blue pattern. And I thought it’s so beautiful. I’m just going to send it up. I know they’re not going to keep it because it’s broken. And by that time, we weren’t retaining a lot of broken material, unless there was some reason to do, because you have to also know that part of our process was the decontamination and cleaning of all materials that were brought up. So just because something comes out of the site doesn’t mean it’s done. There goes, they go through a succession of baths, washes and drawing and packing. And then the custodian of that collection has to deal with all that pack materials. So not a lot of destroyed material was coming up, but this little piece of blue and white pottery I sent up because of the lovely design that was on it. And I found out later in the day that the owner was so excited to see it, because it actually was an example of a very rare pattern. And so that piece was kept. But if I hadn’t looked at it, appreciated it and had thrown it to the side without asking the question then that would have been lost.


Tanya: Wow. Yeah, that’s a beautiful story.


Tara: There were examples like that to varying degrees for good and bad, like where we would think, ‘oh, look it’s almost perfect’. And they would say, ‘okay, great. We’ll take it, but that was easy to come by’ or that, ‘that wasn’t a great example’.


Heidi: Or it was from the staff tea room and we just, we got it at the dollar store!


Tara: Oh, yeah, that’s my mug, my coffee mug!

But yeah, so also fortunately for the, in the case of the museum, she had digital images of everything and a very good record keeping system. So, she was able to, even with a piece or a small fragment, able to identify what it came with. And I think you had asked where they are right now and what’s happening at that front? I know what the museum, with the museum and archives, they’re in a holding pattern, frankly. They’re, they’re caught between ‘what do we do next? What do we, how do we recover what we have?’, they’re evaluating what they’ve got. They’re reaching out to their communities and both their colleagues and their communities to let them know what was lost, what was salvaged, what holes can the community fill? What can they donate? So, they’re active in social media and places, but there’s a lot of other issues going on in the village right now, whether they’re rebuilding or not, who’s rebuilding, who’s paying for it, et cetera. So that part of the discussion, I think is probably a point of frustration for them. And how they’re going to move forward is undetermined. But I know from when we’ve connected and talked to these people afterwards, that they are looking at what was able to be salvaged and hope, and in the case of the Chinese museum, looking to rebuild. In the case of the museum and archives, they don’t know if they have enough left. They don’t know where they’re headed. And I hope that they can really rely on the community to get that material back and maybe to fill up a few more and be a different… it’s maybe an opportunity to re-imagine what they were saying as a community. So, it’ll be interesting to see where they’re headed, but working with them, it was essential.


Tanya: We’ve seen quite a few photographs of the work that you’ve done and a lot of the other work that’s been done on these sites, so it’s really interesting to hear your stories and your experiences and behind these photographs. So, thank you for all of this. And so, you mentioned a little bit about some of the takeaways or the lessons that, that have come from doing this salvage and recovery work. And this of course was one of the most destructive disasters to befall a BC Museum in our living memory. So, I’m wondering if you could speak to that a little bit about what are the lessons and some of the takeaways for our museum and cultural heritage community.


Heidi: I think Tara and I will have different examples, but I have to right off the top of my head. And one that’s already been mentioned is that is the documentation of your collection, that it still exists is a really important part of any disaster planning, because then you’ve got that a record to go back to, to really understand what you’ve lost, hopefully, so that you can re associate the fragments back with the information that you have within your database. We were finding catalog numbers, completely burned off of the pieces that we found. So, in a lot of instances, it was still possible to go back to the picture and then reconnect it with its lost information.

And the other really big lesson for me is gaining access to the sites. So, heritage responders are much different than first responders, are much different than other larger well-established organizations that have access to the proper pathways for getting the permits to get in. So, for me, in my institution, one of the things that I want to make sure is within our plan and understood by the higher ups is that we would like an organization like the BC HERN, whoever it is that’s responding, to have access to the site early on, and then they’re not sitting there waiting for who are you? Why are you here? Do you have the credentials to enter?


Tara: and taking that, that we want, we will need people like the BC HERN and taking that information up the chain. It’s one thing within the institution to have a plan. One of the things I take home like Heidi, I took a few things home and one of them is that so much was out of our hands. And in the fact that we were three months out was because the bigger processes at other levels, municipal, provincial government, federal government, maybe those processes are so structured and organized, but they don’t include, or they don’t consider maybe the special needs of a cultural institution or heritage collections.

So, if there’s, so I’ve been, we’ve been talking amongst ourselves at the BC HERN and we’ve all been thinking about how do we bridge that gap? How do we talk to the emergency responders on the inside, the organizations that have the ability and are used to going in and responding right away, are used to being, dealing with the building safety and things that just to, to maybe fast track some of our efforts in this process. Internally, maybe that means getting volunteers prepared and ready to go get the background checks and all that stuff. Even if we never use them, hopefully we never will, but so that when we have an emergency and we need volunteers, we don’t have to spend weeks doing background checks or weeks doing that kind of thing. Getting all these little things in place, getting our, maybe touring our contractors our insurance brokers and our, the people that, that deal with administration when it comes or finances, when it comes to an emergency, are our claims adjuster, touring him or her through the building ahead of time, introducing them to the collection. Trying to fast-track some of these things that are going to hold up the procedure. And so, I’m really seeing how that gap between what we thought we had covered as far as preparedness and what the municipal, federal and provincial governments have in place, bridging that gap.

Then the other thing I took home is, that’s on a large-scale event or disaster, especially in British Columbia, where earthquake is a real threat or risk to our collections. Human safety, of course, will trump us [BC HERN], but after human safety, how do I get in there quick? How do I get the people I need in there quick?

And then on a smaller scale, what brought home to me is a really valuation of ‘how am I telling people to prepare, how am I telling them to store materials? How am I telling them to what kind of furniture should they be using?’ and things that I took for granted. Now, maybe I should be re-evaluating, seeing all the exhibit shelves that were glass, seeing those glass shelves, melted and encapsulating the item. Is that better or worse than a wood shelf charring?


Heidi: and seeing all of the metal cabinets. So many metal cabinets, everything within them just gone because of it, it just intensified the amount of heat that was in there.


Tara: So, I think it really helped in that sense, took that away. I think at the BC HERN, our members, what we took away with was communication and the value and importance of communication in an emergency situation. And how does that translate to our training methods and our training techniques and what we’re trying to really get through and enforce in these people. And as you mentioned earlier, the value of the network. One thing we were very fortunate was to bring one of our team leaders who’s not in the steering committee, but bringing one of the BC HERN team leaders, zone leaders in to help, and I think that really helped for her community.


Tanya: Those so many important points and so many things that we probably initially wouldn’t think of in so many layers to that. So, thank you. Is there anything that you wanted to add about your experience at Lytton or with the work or that kind of comes up or comes to mind or comes to heart at this moment?


Heidi: For me, one of the sentiments that I keep expressing has just an incredible amount of gratitude that I personally feel. And I believe other team members do as well, for being able to assist and not just because it makes you feel really good to help, makes you feel really good to be able to see the looks on people’s faces when you’re able to recover these things that they thought were going forever. But as I’ve said before, the amount of invaluable experience that we gained from this exercise is I think, going to help the province as a whole, for anybody that decides they would like to follow any of our training, access any of our resources, or join the network itself.


Tara: I think the other thing for me just to add to that, Heidi is the generosity of the people who had suffered great loss. Like they’ve lost everything, but they were, [asking] how can we help? How can we feed you? Can we, what supplies do you need that you didn’t don’t have? They were just really generous with not only their time, but any other resources that they might be able to have. And they were, willing to change what they were doing to meet our shortened schedule. And so that aspect really put, umm, it made it a little, put a little bit of a spring in the step that was quite solemn. And meeting and just working with people whose, who are volunteering for the most part too.

I was inspired by all these people that would come out and it was uncomfortable. It was not pleasant at all. I, we would almost at the end flip a coin as to who didn’t have to go get dressed in this equipment.


Heidi: It was cold. It was windy or it was too hot and you would take it off and you’d be dripping with sweat and couldn’t quite breathe properly.

So yeah, it was definitely uncomfortable. Or and once you were taped into the high-level PP, you could not go to the bathroom for a long time!


Tara: The procedure to get in and out of the appropriate PPE was time consuming and frankly expensive with the amounts of supplies you’re using.


Heidi: lots of tape!


Tara: So, you just, you didn’t just peel it off and grab a drink. You couldn’t touch anything because you were contaminated. So, you really have to be prepared. S,o it was uncomfortable and it was nasty. But the bright part was of course, finding when we did salvage things and. And then interacting with these people who were just generous and had gone through great lengths to help us assist them in this time when they’ve lost it all.


Tanya: Wow. Yeah. Thank you both also for your generosity and for all of your insights and your leadership as heritage responders and as experts. As the BCMA and as the museum and heritage sector, we are all very grateful for you taking the time in chatting about this today and for all of the ongoing work that you do.

Thank you so much again for this conversation. And if anyone would like to read more about BC HERN or more of these topics, again, we will provide some links and resources in the description. And you can follow the BCMA podcast on Podbean or your favorite podcast streaming platform, and listen to the rest of the Climate Action Leadership Network podcast series.

These are very important conversations that we’re having. So, thank you again, Tara and Heidi, this has been really insightful today. I’m so grateful to have had this conversation with you today


Heidi: and thank you.


Tara: Thank you.