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From one devastated community to another, Fort McMurray's advice to Lytton after wildfire

(Martin MacMahon, NEWS 1130 Photo)

LYTTON (NEWS 1130) – A man who was impacted by the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire and who was part of the rebuilding effort is offering some insights into what recovery in Lytton might look like, two weeks after the B.C. village was decimated by flames, forcing everyone out.

The people of Lytton were recently able to drive through the community and see what was left behind by the wildfire, which destroyed 90 per cent of homes and buildings.

Many are now looking ahead to what it will take to rebuild the community, and begin healing.

Sheldon Germain was a city councillor and recovery task force member in Fort McMurray, Alberta, which was devastated by fire more than five years ago. He says Lytton is in store for a physical, social, and emotional road to recovery in the days, months, and years ahead.

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But his number one piece of advice for those forced out of the Fraser Canyon community is to temper expectations.

“It’s no small feat,” he explained. “Everyone in the Fort McMurray situation wanted to get back and start rebuilding the day after the fire was extinguished. But there are so many logistics, so many safety steps that have to occur, and so much clean up. It is very, very difficult. So to the people of B.C., be patient and just realize it will come back, and you will build back better. But you have to be patient and take your time.”

Germain admits some people in Fort McMurray were only able to get back into their rebuilt homes in the last year, and many spaces in the community remain empty.

“There are empty lots in Fort McMurray where you can see somebody’s heart every time you drive by,” Germain said.

A burnt out pickup truck is seen in the drive way of a burned down home in the Beacon Hill neighbourhood during a media tour of the fire-damaged city of Fort McMurray, Alta., on Monday, May 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

He tells NEWS 1130 there were a number of challenges Fort McMurray faced in its road to recovery.

Germain says the recovery committee was criticized by some for not getting to the physical rebuild faster, as they let residents in almost one by one to sift through what remained of their homes and belongings.

“But it was all worth it for me when a young lady came up and said, ‘I found this necklace. This was my great-grandmother’s necklace and I found it sifting. So thank you Mr. Germain for doing that and allowing us to do that.’ So for me that was the trigger that told me, yeah, you can rebuild fast, but can you recover quickly?” he explained.

Germain says they extensively explored mental health support and what the road to emotional recovery could look like after the wildfire.

Looking to places in the U.S. impacted by Hurricane Katrina, he says the recovery committee was able to get a sense of what to expect.

Related video: Lytton bus tour takes evacuees through wildfire-ravaged village

However, he admits it won’t be an easy road for the people of Lytton to navigate.

“It’s going to be arduous, it’s going to be long. They’re going to be dealing with insurance companies. It is this funny thing where you want your municipal government, or your provincial government, or your federal government to come and do a lot, but a lot of it is an insurance issue,” Germain explained.

He says the Wood Buffallo Recovery Committee tried to work as closely as possible with the insurance industry to facilitate discussions with locals.

Another key move, Germain believes, is that community members were put on the recovery committee, to help navigate the path forward.

“It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be long,” he said to the people of Lytton.

When it comes to local leadership, he says the important thing is to govern expectations.

“They really have to be caring and slow down and listen to what I call the message instead of the noise. You’re going to hear a lot of noise in this situation, where people are going to be loud and want certain things, but you really have to sit down, lean in, seek to understand about what is the true message? What is the true policy that we need to put in place to help the greater good of the residents?” he recommended.

The wildfire that destroyed much of Lytton left two people dead. The flames swept through the village on June 30, forcing the quick evacuation of the entire community. Many left so quickly that they only had the clothes on their backs.

But as many continue to come to grips with what happened, Germain has a message for Lytton: you’re not alone.

“People have been there before. People have come back and been better. As devastating as this feels, you’ve got to know that Canada is behind you, and that we all care,” he said. “As someone who’s lived through it, I can tell you that people do get back and get back to what they call a new normal, and you guys will too. But be patient, err on the side of kindness, seek to understand, and you guys will be fine.”