Although it is still early in the wildfire season, nearly 46,000 Canadians have been displaced from communities across the central interior of British Columbia. Almost 20,000 more are on evacuation alert. Anglicans in Canada have offered shelter and donations to those in need.
On July 8 the province declared a state of emergency that could last for weeks as more than 160 aggressive wildfires are raging, including 15 that officials say pose “very real threats” to communities.
Most of the communities that have been evacuated or that are on evacuation alert are in the Territory of the People, the new name for what was formerly known as the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior. The Rt. Rev. Barbara Andrews estimates that 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 has registered all its buildings (which are not damaged) with emergency services as overflow for evacuees. St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kamloops is particularly well-suited since it has mattresses and an industrial-size kitchen that it uses for its Out of the Cold program in the winter. It can feed 100 people and sleep 30.
“When you are dislocated from home and work, and especially if you have children, there is a heck of a lot of time to fill — eight to ten hours a day,” said the Very Rev. Ken Gray, the cathedral dean. The cathedral has launched a hospitality space to offer not only food and clothing but also cell-phone charging, games, toys, and a children’s library. “It’s a place to hang out that is safe and comfortable, fun, and free from the smoke.”
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 centers and hospitals.
The Long Haul
While the outpouring of volunteer support has been phenomenal in Kamloops, a city of 90,000, the dean says the challenge will be to sustain the effort “over the long haul” as the fire season continues until the end of September. So far, he said, “the entire interior of B.C. is on fire — one third of the province. And we are only into two weeks of what is essentially a 12-week fire season.”
About 8,000 people have fled the fires by heading north to Prince George, a city of 70,000. There they have been 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 that some of her parishioners have welcomed not only family but also strangers into their homes. One congregant who works in a thrift shop has 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.
Last year the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the Anglican Church of Canada body that usually directs funds to overseas disasters, gave $280,000 CND for relief work during the Fort McMurray fire in Alberta that saw almost 90,000 people evacuated from their homes.
Naba Gurung, the fund’s humanitarian response coordinator, has been in close contact with Bishop Andrews to determine how best to respond in this current crisis. The fund accepts donations at pwrdf.org/donate.
‘Thick, Thick Smoke’
The church’s work coincides with mass evacuations and significant firefighting efforts.
The entire city of Williams Lake, located about six hours northeast of Vancouver, was ordered evacuated on July 15. More than half of the 10,00 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.”
The evacuation order for Williams Lake was issued after strong wind gusts of up to 70 kilometers per hour were pushing flames across the Fraser River and threatening to choke off major highways.
Hundreds of cots have been set up in the Kamloops Sandman Centre, a multipurpose arena. It is just one of 11 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 Albertan city ravaged by wildfires last year.
One wildfire near the boundary between B.C. and Alberta has 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. (In a dry thunderstorm there is thunder and lightning but very little precipitation that reaches the ground.)
Robert Turner, assistant deputy manager for Emergency Management B.C., said that while more people (a total of 50,000) were displaced in B.C.’s 2003 wildfire season, this year’s fires span a larger geographic area. As well, it’s still early in the wildfire season.
“The possible duration of this is different,” Turner said. “We have not yet reached those  numbers, but it is in many ways a much more complicated response because of the geographic scope.”
Fire officials are expecting to be in “response mode” for another 60 days, he added.
By July 16 more than 6,700 households had registered with the Canadian Red Cross to receive their $600 CND in emergency financial assistance.
Winds picked up in the central interior, jumping rivers and highways and threatening to cut off escape routes. “In some cases, we did have to withdraw our own personnel from the fire line to ensure their safety,” said Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.’s chief fire information officer.
Forests Minister John Rustad said on July 15 that 2,900 people are battling blazes across B.C., including 415 from outside the province. Fifty top-level Australian firefighters have volunteered to join the battle. There are 203 aircraft, some from the military, assisting in the firefight. A helicopter working on a blaze west of Williams Lake crashed, injuring the pilot, who is now reported in stable condition.
Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.’s chief fire information officer, said gusty winds were expected to trigger more extreme and violently aggressive fire behavior. He said crews had been preparing for the winds by conducting controlled burns in the fire path near the communities of Williams Lake, 100 Mile House, and 150 Mile House to prevent the fires from spreading. But high wind speeds could still send embers beyond the controlled areas.
Since April 1, British Columbia has seen 657 fires scorching 188,000 hectares of land. More than $81 million CND has been spent fighting wildfires so far this year. This does not include the cost of supporting evacuees. To date no deaths have been attributed to the fires.