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Kristen Dobyns: Exiled by wildfire


Photos: Nick Van Helsdingen

Two priests from the United States were among the clergy who fled BC’s massive wildfires, along with their parishioners and many thousands of others. The Rev. Kristen Dobyns and her husband, the Rev. Keith Dobyns, have served in the region for the past five years. They came from the Diocese of Indianapolis. Before entering the ministry they had worked in rural family medicine in Washington and Alaska. Kristen spoke with Sue Careless, first in July and then again in September. 

On July 18th:

TAP: Do you live in 100 Mile House or Williams Lake?

KD: Keith and I live in 100 Mile House. We share a position serving St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in 100 Mile House and St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Williams Lake.  We also serve St. Luke’s  Anglican Church in Alexis Creek in the Chilcotin about 80 minutes west of Williams Lake – although not in the summer because members are too busy ranching and they drive from so far away to come to church.

TAP: When did you leave, during the alert or when the evacuation order was given?

KD: I packed up when the alert came in, keeping essentials I still needed in bags by the door.  I left 45 minutes before the order on July 9th. It suddenly got really smoky and ash was landing in my neighbour’s back yard.  They decided to leave and so did I. Keith had been away visiting our grandson in Ontario.  He flew back to B.C. the day of the order and was not allowed to drive home--the roads were only open to evacuees leaving.

TAP: What did you take with you?

KD: The District of 100 Mile House handed out an evacuation sheet a few days before with suggestions of what to take. They knocked on people’s doors.  I took several days’ worth of clothing, food (in two bags with 1/2 gallon milk jugs with frozen water in them for refrigeration), my BAS, iPad, phone, laptop and chargers, dogfood and my dog with a collapsible kennel in case I needed it.  I also took a hat, sunglasses and jacket in case it got cool. Unnecessarily I brought a rain jacket. I took a lockbox with passports, birth certificates, cash and cheque books.  I brought two albums of photos my mother had given me from my childhood. There were too many other photo albums to grab -- not enough room.

I also went through the house a few hours before leaving and took photos of everything in every room, including all my clergy attire, stoles, chasubles, etc, to show I had them if needed for insurance purposes.  I also took photos of pictures and art work in case they were burned so I would be able to remember them. I brought one clerical dicky, a small traveling communion kit, healing oil in an oil stock and a green stole.  I also brought a family combination BCP/Bible/Psalter from England.

Our Bishop, Barbara Andrews, asked me and someone in Williams Lake to bring all the parish records, marriages, baptisms, burials, confirmations and vestry book (which is where we record our services and attendance). I brought those and delivered them to the Bishop in Kamloops; my warden from Williams Lake did the same thing.

TAP: Did you travel by car? And where did you go?

KD: I traveled by car. I had filled my tanks when the fire started.  My dog and I stayed with a parishioner who hosted several of us Sunday night [July 9th] just outside the evacuation zone.  On Monday morning I drove on Highway 24 to Little Fort on Highway 5.  My husband Keith, who had just flown back Sunday, drove up to Barriere and we met up at the local A&W for breakfast. We then drove south to Abbotsford B.C. in the lower mainland where our son lives. We are staying with him.

TAP: Did most of your parishioners leave during the alert or did most wait until the evacuation? 

KD: I think most stayed until the order but I’m not sure.  Some just went as far as Horse Lake outside of town. It is still only on evacuation alert.

TAP: How are you tracking your parishioners?

KD: I am trying to track parishioners by using their cell phones to send text messages, by Facebook, and through church emails. I found one family I was worried about by seeing a photo of them at an evacuation centre in 100 Mile House. They had evacuated from 108 Mile, then they had to evacuate again and I found them by calling another parishioner. I am still looking for some others.

TAP: Which is harder, waiting in the smoke of home or being ‘safe’ in another city?

KD: It is easier being in another city. Waiting and watching the smoke grow and come towards town was eerie.  Not knowing if we would have to leave at a moment’s notice was stressful. My street was full of trailers of people who had already evacuated from the 108 Mile several days before and then they had to leave again.

TAP: How are you ministering during this crisis?

KD: I have spent much time tracking down parishioners and talking on the phone or through email with them. I have been maintaining the St. Peter’s Facebook page which I am using to post announcements from B.C. Wildfire, Cariboo Regional Emergency District and the two local papers. I have also begun posting prayers--for travel, for safety and more recently links to Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline in case people need a way to stay grounded and to know God is with them.

Keith left Abbotsford Monday morning [July 10th] and returned to Kamloops to help out there and to minister to displaced Anglicans. I am going to the Chilliwack Evacuation Centre to see if I can find anyone there.

TAP: Is anyone ministering to you?

KD: My son’s family is great. My other children have been in contact. Our Bishop has been very supportive. I plan on a long-distance session of spiritual direction on Wednesday.

TAP: What do you find encouraging in the midst of all this terrible upheaval?

KD: Everyone is helping each other out. Prayer helps a lot and taking breaks for rest. It has been pretty frightening--the fires are immense! Our people and other ranchers in the Chilcotin have all stayed to fight the fires and try to save their ranches. That is a worry; all we can do is hold them in prayer.


An Update from Kristen on Sept. 11th:

TAP: When were the evacuation orders lifted for 100 Mile House and Williams Lake?

KD: 100 Mile House was evacuated at around 8 pm on Sunday, July 9. The evacuation order was lifted on July 22, 13 days later. I returned on the Sunday, but we were on evacuation alert another week.

 Williams Lake was evacuated on July 15. Residents were allowed to return 18 days later, but the town and surrounding areas were on high alert for several weeks. High alert means you have to be ready to leave with 30 minutes notice. Some people did not return to work because they wouldn’t have had time to go home and get children or pets.

TAP: Have you had to evacuate again since your return?

KD: Thankfully no, although there have been lightning-strike fires north of town and people have evacuated three separate times to 100 Mile in the last few weeks.

TAP: Have you been on standby alert again?

KD: No, but Horse Lake just south of town, where many people live, has been back on alert for a week or more because the Elephant Hill fire continues to move north. So school has not been able to start there yet. Those alert zones come right to the town of 100 Mile House border.

TAP: Did most of your parishioners return to their homes?

KD: Yes, eventually. Those with health problems and respiratory issues stayed away longer. When a town is on alert the hospital is only open for emergencies; there are no inpatient services. As well all the nursing homes, long-term care facilities and assisted-living facilities stay closed with all their residents evacuated. So some of our members who lived in those facilities didn’t come back for much longer.

TAP: How are you and your parishioners holding up under all the stress?

KD: I think 100 Mile residents have been under a little less stress until the last week because we didn’t have fires close by and weren’t on alert. When lightning strikes started fires and evacuees began coming to town a couple of weeks ago that heightened the stress. All the parishioners living near the evacuation order for Elephant Hill came to church very stressed a week ago. It is always stressful and oppressive on days when the smoke clouds billow and the air is bad.

Williams Lake people were pretty stressed by their weeks of being on alert. Some parishioners delayed their return by one or two weeks to let things settle down.

At a community meeting for helping agencies last week it was noted that both alcohol and domestic abuse have increased in the region.

Keith and I are planning to visit our third church, St. Luke’s in Alexis Creek next Sunday [Sept. 17]. Their alerts have only recently been lifted.  They are in the Chilcotin, which has had two huge megafires burning for over two months. We’ve been told to expect lots of destruction, burned-out buildings and vehicles on the 80-minute drive there from Williams Lake, also loose cattle and wildlife on the highways. Our parishioners there are mostly ranchers and they are planning a Harvest Thanksgiving service where we will celebrate people’s survival and any produce that managed to survive the fires.

TAP: Do you find yourself on ‘high alert’ emotionally?

KD: I took one week away in August to de-stress. Then after Labour Day I was away for a week to help my granddaughter start grade 2. The first time I drove to Williams Lake after they had a little rain, the clouds looked like the smoke clouds. I and some parishioners felt we’d have to learn to relax and enjoy clouds again.

100 Mile House had a much-delayed Summer Festival in the Park on Labour Day weekend. It was a fun time for all with car shows, First Nations dancing and drumming, lots of booths selling things including cotton candy, and plenty of activities for all ages. I think everyone relaxed because it felt normal for a while. However, the mayor spoke and reminded people we were only half-way through a normal fire season.

TAP: What would you do differently if there were another evacuation?

KD: I will keep my important papers together and ready to grab at a moment’s notice. I plan to scan in older photos to save digital copies. I might be a little less scared because I know the routine for collecting things and for leaving so it would be more familiar.

TAP: What have you learned through this stressful summer inferno?

KD: People who had experienced this type of event before were in the forefront of volunteers and helpers. People who helped others felt pretty good and more in control of their lives.

Some in both towns and churches wanted to know if it was the apocalypse, a sign of the end times. People need to know God is with them in disasters too. They need to have continually reinforced that God cares, God loves them and has compassion for their plight. Pastoral care is important for evacuees, for returnees, and for long-term recovery.

In both towns the pastors’ associations have come together during the crisis and aftermath. We are all working together with other agencies to help with long-term recovery. We’ve been impressed by the help from both the Red Cross and Emergency Support Services for all who were evacuated across the province. 

We are all praying for those affected by wildfires in the U.S. and also the two major hurricanes in the south.  It will be a summer to remember.  TAP

The July portion of this interview first appeared in The Living Church on Aug. 13.


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