By Sue Careless
AS A RAGING wildfire approached Fort McMurray, the Rev. Dane Neufeld told his young son that the Athabasca River would stop the fire in its march towards the city in northeast Alberta. But the fire progressed unimpeded, spreading across the river and forcing evacuation of the entire city.
“Daddy, you said fire couldn’t cross the river,” six-year-old Anton said, “but it did” — even the waters of the mighty Athabasca.
The wildfire was jumping over rivers and highways and by May 4th had engulfed Fort McMurray, forcing the mandatory evacuation of almost 90,000 people from their homes, including Anton and his three younger siblings. It was the largest evacuation in the province’s history.
An estimated 1,600 houses were destroyed; no lives were reported lost directly due to the fire. Two people died in a traffic accident fleeing the fire, one the teenage daughter of a firefighter. About 225 firefighters were working on the ground and in the air to battle the flames, and the province declared a state of emergency and requested military aid. By May 6th the fire covered over 100,000 hectares.
Neufeld, rector of All Saints Church in downtown Fort McMurray, and his wife Juanita, fled north with Anton and his siblings: Clara, 3, and the one-year-old twins, Leo and Maggie. The next day they drove south to his parents’ home in Calgary, stopping in Edmonton to comfort some parishioners who had lost everything.
Most evacuees fled south. The drive south to Edmonton, which normally takes four and a half hours, seemed endless as vehicles were trapped in gridlock and smoke. Many ran out of gas and were refueled by passing oil trucks. Good Samaritans from properties out of harm’s way came with food and water for stranded motorists. Communities 50 km south of Fort McMurray, which had set up shelters, eventually had to be evacuated as well.
“It’s weird being in another city when your city is burning,” Neufeld said. “Lots of people drove through horrific fires, scared for their lives.”
Neufeld, ordained just shy of two years, knew he’d have his work cut out for him.
So did the rector of St. Thomas, the other Anglican parish in Fort McMurray. The Rev. Christopher Tapera, his wife, Juliate, and teenage daughter Lisa were among the 20,000 evacuees who fled north and took shelter in oil-worker camps. Most oil-sand operations shut down to accommodate them.
Tapera and his family arrived from Zimbabwe only four months before the fire. Like Neufeld, his parishioners were now scattered all over the province in three different dioceses, but both priests tried to track down their flocks through phone, Facebook, and texting to make sure they were safe. The Diocese of Athabasca helped through its website.
“There is life after disaster,” Tapera said during the crisis. “God is there for us. God will never leave us; he will make sure we overcome this.”
About 200 other evacuees were housed briefly in Wapasu Creek Lodge in Fort MacKay, and Tapera helped those who wanted prayer and pastoral counseling.
Many of these northern evacuees were later flown south to Edmonton and Calgary by the military and by mining operators who own private planes and airstrips. Fifty-car convoys were organized by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to travel down Hwy. 63 to Edmonton, thus avoiding the gridlock and panic of the first evacuation.
St. Augustine in Edmonton and St. James in Calgary were each designated as “gathering” parishes, where displaced Fort McMurray residents could worship and reconnect with friends. Anglicans across the dioceses of Athabasca, Calgary and Edmonton, opened their homes to family, friends and even strangers. Diocesan offices coordinated efforts to find volunteers and suitable accommodation.
The parishes of Lac La Biche and the Northern Lights were crucial in assisting evacuees.
As of June 22nd, The Primate’s World Relief Fund (PWRDF), which usually directs funds to overseas disasters, had sent $81,818 for relief work. The Anglican Relief and Development Fund Canada (ARDFC), the relief agency of the Anglican Network in Canada, a smaller Anglican denomination, raised $16,526. ARDFC partnered with the Canadian Red Cross so their funds qualified for the Federal Government’s matching program, which doubled the amount.
The funds from both agencies helped purchase basic supplies such as diapers, toiletries and gas cards.
While Anglican church buildings in Fort McMurray were unharmed, the priests and their bishop know that rebuilding the lives of their parishioners could take years.
The Rt. Rev. Fraser Lawton, Bishop of Athabasca, served for 13 years at St. Thomas in the devastated city.
“We want to apply what we learned from the Slave Lake fire in 2011,” he said.
Bishop Lawton knew many residents would want to rush back before it would be safe to return.
“Some will need longer-term housing support. Rebuilding a community will take years, especially when much of the infrastructure is gone. It won’t be the same. We want to take care of our parishioners and also reach out and offer spiritual care to others. Some will be suffering from PTSD. There will be mourning that people will have to do. It is not a short-term thing; it may take decades.”
Bishops all across Canada contacted Bishop Lawton, many of them offering priests to help with pastoral care. He was touched to hear from the Rt. Rev. Franklin Brookhart, Bishop of Montana, who called to ask how he could help. “The wider church is there for us.”
“God will provide,” Tapera said. “We can learn from biblical history. Jerusalem was a beautiful city that was reduced to ashes by the Babylonians. But God helped the Israelites return and rebuild their city. God will use us and other people and organizations to rebuild our city too.”
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Living Church www.livingchurch.org May 9th.