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 from 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 4 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 and other structures have been destroyed; no lives have been 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 are working on the ground and in the air to battle the flames, and the province has declared a state of emergency and requested military aid. By May 6 the fire covered nearly 250,000 acres.
Neufeld, rector of All Saints Church in downtown Fort McMurray, along with his wife and children, fled north for one night and then 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 30 miles 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 has been ordained just shy of two years, but he knows he has his work cut out for him.
So does the rector of St. Thomas, the other Anglican parish in Fort McMurray. The Rev. Christopher Tapera, his wife, and teenage daughter were among the 25,000 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 ago. Like Neufeld, his parishioners are now scattered all over the province in three different dioceses, but both priests are trying to track down their flocks through phone, Facebook, and texting to make sure they are safe. The Diocese of Athabasca is helping through its website.
“There is life after disaster,” Tapera said. “God is there for us. God will never leave us; he will make sure we overcome this.”
About 200 other evacuees are housed in Wapasu Creek Lodge in Fort MacKay, and Tapera is helping those who want prayer and pastoral counseling. He also hopes to hold a service on Sunday.
Many of these northern evacuees likely will be flown south to Edmonton and Calgary in the next few days by the military and by mining operators who own private planes and airstrips. Fifty-car convoys are being 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 have each been designated as “gathering” parishes, where displaced Fort McMurray residents may worship and reconnect with friends. Anglicans across the dioceses of Athabasca, Calgary, and Edmonton, have opened their homes to family, friends, and even strangers. Diocesan offices are coordinating efforts to find volunteers and suitable accommodation.
The Primate’s World Relief Fund (PWRDF), which usually directs funds to overseas disasters, has sent $15,000 to parishes providing relief work in the Diocese of Edmonton as of May 5. The funds will help purchase basic supplies such as diapers, toiletries, and gas cards.
More funds are being raised daily online. The Canadian federal government has promised to match funds raised by the Red Cross. Nabu Gurung, PWRDF’s development and human relief coordinator, will consult with colleagues in other relief organizations to see if the government will match their funds as well.
“The Red Cross has not yet reached some of our parishes like Cold Lake that we are able to support,” Gurung said. “The parishes of Lac La Biche and the Northern Lights have also been busy assisting evacuees.”
While Anglican church buildings in Fort McMurray seem to be safe, 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. “Residents want to rush back, but it may not be safe. 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 have contacted Bishop Lawton, many of them offering priests to help with pastoral care. He was touched to hear from the Rt. Rev. C. Franklin Brookhart, Jr., 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.”