Wildfires wreaking devastation across British Columbia and the Northwest Territories appear to have spared Catholic churches, though the same can’t be said about numerous other buildings.
As of Aug. 22, more than 50 structures were confirmed to be destroyed or partially destroyed in West Kelowna, and most of Enterprise, NWT, was destroyed. Firefighters were making good progress in their battle with B.C fires, and a fire that forced the evacuation of Yellowknife, the territory’s capital, was being contained by firefighting tactics.
Bishop Jon Hansen of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese said he has not heard of any parishes from the six pastoral regions he oversees experiencing damage.
However, considering over 30,000 people throughout the territory – including all 20,000-plus citizens of Yellowknife – were ordered to evacuate, it is nearly impossible for Bishop Hansen to have live updates about the churches. He is currently sheltering in Grande Prairie with his brother and niece and is avidly logging on to cabinradio.ca to keep up to date with the firefighting effort.
Hansen sent an email update he set to parishioners the day after he completed his 12-hour evacuation drive from Yellowknife to Alberta. He described the devastation of motoring through Enterprise, a hamlet described as “90 per cent gone” following the fiery destruction.
“I drove through there yesterday and it was the closest image to an apocalyptic wasteland that I have ever seen,” wrote Bishop Hansen.
Meanwhile, more than 35,000 British Columbians are affected by evacuation orders due to the nearly 400 wildfires currently raging in the province under a state of emergency. Some of the frontline locations of the fiery battle in B.C. include Shuswap Lake, Lake Country, and West Kelowna.
On Aug. 18, West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund grimly described what unfolded the night before as “100 years’ worth of firefighting in one night.”
Nelson Bishop Gregory Bittman said Aug. 22 only one parish in this volatile region had to be evacuated: St. Edward’s Church in Winfield, a neighbourhood and ward of Lake Country. The evacuation order has been lifted but the area remains on evacuation alert.
“Many parishioners have been affected by the fires, either being evacuated from their homes or being on evacuation alert,” he said, and many have found places to stay. The diocese has circulated a prayer for times of wildfire to all parishes.
Fathers Obi Ibekwe and Biju Anthony transported the Blessed Sacrament and the holy oils on Aug. 19 to St. Pius X Church in Kelowna, a natural destination considering Father Ibekwe is the senior pastor of both St. Edward’s and St. Pius.
Father Ibekwe wrote in the Aug. 20 St. Pius X parish bulletin that “the fires have come upon us so swiftly. Please know that Fr. Biju and I are praying for you: for your safety and protection and that our dear Lord may bring an end to the fires. We are thinking of you.”
The pastor also shared how at a low point in his life he had experienced a joyful, spiritual encounter with God and Our Lady of Guadalupe while in Mexico. He relayed the story to remind his flock that even though it is hard to experience the presence of God at a time of loss “God is always there,” and we are called to believe “he is still working. He is working for my good. His goodness is running after me.”
Bishop Hansen said despite the hardships, he has witnessed the best of humanity amid despair. During his drive, he saw many farmyards in northern Alberta that “were freshly mowed and had big, hand-painted signs, offering free camping to all those equipped with tents and RVs.
“The next few days are now just a matter of waiting to see what will happen next,” wrote Hansen. “All our staff and clergy are safe and accounted for, although they have been scattered to the wind by plane and by road. Keep the prayers coming as we ask for the miracle of rainfall in abundance for our parched land.”
In the Diocese of Whitehorse, Bishop Hector Vila said the hundreds of wildfire reports in the Yukon and Northern British Columbia had led to two Yukon communities being evacuated, Old Crow and Mayo. Neither communities sustained damage to buildings and residents have returned home, although evacuation alerts remain active.
Bishop Vila said one mission parish in Mayo, Christ the King, remains in contact with the priest at St. Mary’s in Dawson City, about 200 km to the northwest, where the parish is ready to help if Mayo is evacuated again.
“Our pastors, parish administrators and lay pastoral associates throughout the diocese are closely monitoring the wildfire reports and alerts for their territory and remain ready to help their communities and other communities in any way they can,” he said.
Canadian Catholic News with B.C. Catholic files