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British Columbia: Suffering and Serving in the Midst of Wildfires

‘The entire interior of B.C. is on fire – one third of the province,’ said Ken Gray, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in Kamloops in July. (Photo: Territory of the People Anglican Church)

By Sue Careless

THIS YEAR has been British Columbia’s worst fire season in history. The provincial state of emergency that was first declared on July 8th has now been extended until Sept. 15th and could be extended yet again.  

“The entire interior of B.C. is on fire – one third of the province,” said the Very Rev. Ken Gray, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in Kamloops in July.  

Most of the communities that have been evacuated or that are on evacuation alert are in the Territory of the People. The Rt. Rev. Barbara Andrews estimates that about 1,000 residents affected by the fires and smoke are Anglicans.

“Every community within the Central Interior … has a fire near their community,” she said. And residents are stressed in the cattle-ranching region as they try to move their families and their livestock out of harm’s way.

The Territory registered all its buildings (none of which, thankfully, had been destroyed) with emergency services as overflow sites for evacuees.

On July 12 the cathedral held an all-day vigil for the evacuees. Clergy who were on their summer holidays also returned to minister in emergency centres and hospitals.

Hundreds of cots were set up in the Kamloops Sandman Centre, a multi-purpose arena. It is just one of about a dozen reception centres opened across the province. Outside, hundreds of volunteers handed out coffee, pastries, food vouchers and pet supplies. Truckloads of donations came from Fort McMurray, the Alberta city ravaged by wildfires last year.

The community response in the city was huge with the Salvation Army, St. John Ambulance, The Red Cross and provincial and municipal emergency services taking the lead at the evacuation centre downtown. St Paul’s initially set up a hospitality space but since the cathedral is not well located, only a handful of evacuees took advantage of it.

However, some local clergy and laity visited the evacuation centres and the Rev. Keith Dobyns lived for a few days at the local pow wow grounds. “He made amazing connections with many folks there,” said Dean Gray.

In July about 8,000 people fled the fires by heading north to Prince George, a city of 70,000. There they were given accommodation in a community college, a secondary school and the University of Northern British Columbia.

The Rev. Alexis Saunders, interim priest at St. Michael and All Angels, said in July that some of her parishioners have welcomed not only family but also strangers into their homes. One congregant who works in a thrift shop put out a call for more bedding and clothing.

Saunders said Prince George had been “overwhelmingly supportive,” training 1,800 volunteers to deal with the crisis.

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the Anglican Church of Canada body that usually directs funds to overseas disasters, gave an initial grant of $5,000 for relief work.

As of September other donations totalling $33,000 have poured into the diocese from across the country and even from the UK. Bishop Andrews has appointed the Rt Rev. Gordon Light (retired) to oversee the disbursal of funds, which go towards food vouchers, toiletries, bus fare, clothing etc.

The entire city of Williams Lake, located about six hours northeast of Vancouver, was given an evacuation order on July 15. More than half of the 10,000 residents had left voluntarily during an evacuation alert, but the remaining thousands drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic south to Kamloops. A drive that normally takes about three hours took 8 to 12.

One evacuee described it as “surreal” and “a long ribbon of red tail lights, all headed in the same direction.” You could “taste the thick, thick smoke in the air.”

One wildfire near the boundary between B.C. and Alberta prompted Parks Canada to close trails and evacuate hikers and campers in Kootenay and Banff national parks. 

The fires, which were started by dry lightning strikes during a long heat wave, are being fanned by strong winds and fuelled by tinder-dry forests and brush. The pine beetle has caused a double devastation, not only killing huge swaths of forests but rendering them fuel for the flames. And even though there have been summer thunderstorms, they are ‘dry’ ones--that is,  there is thunder and lightning but very little rain reaches the ground.

With strong winds, the flames jump rivers and highways and threaten to cut off escape routes.

“While the fires present an enormous challenge for the human population, they can have a powerful rejuvenating effect on the forest health of these fire-dependent ecosystems,” said forest ecologist David Stratford.  “Lodgepole and Ponderosa Pine are fire-dependent. Their cones only open after exposure to extremely high temperatures and their seeds germinate on recently burned bare mineral soils. The long-term impact of these fires will likely be improved ecological health and resilience, which will subsequently benefit local human communities as well.” 

Kamloops itself has been spared any fire damage. “The chief issue here is smoke, very prolonged and heavy smoke,” said Dean Gray. “You simply crave clean air. The daily mood is often dour, even now, in week nine of the disaster.” There is also a sense of “heightened anxiety” because wildfires are so unpredictable.

More than 150 wildfires continue to burn across the province. Thousands of British Columbians are still on evacuation order and about 12,000 remain on evacuation alert.

Chris Duffy with Emergency Management B.C. said that more than 300 structures had been destroyed, including 71 homes.

Evacuated households that register with the Canadian Red Cross are eligible to receive at least $600. Eligible small businesses affected by the fires can receive a $1,500 emergency grant through the Canadian Red Cross and the province.

On Sept. 4th the federal and B.C. governments agreed to offer a $20 million aid package to help ranchers and farmers, who have suffered significant losses because of the wildfires.  Tourism has been badly hit too.

“We now live in a new environmental normal, said Dean Gray. “Costs to the province are closing in on half a billion dollars. Forestry and ranching are devastated. Folks especially in the Cariboo are exhausted.  It’s a big new challenge.”   TAP

For an interview with a priest who had to evacuate from 100 Mile House see p. 8.

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