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Churches wait out British Columbia fires

Posted on: August 27, 2003 2:00 PM
Related Categories: Canada

by Leanne Larmondin

[ACNS source: Anglican Church of Canada] Churches in the Okanagan region of British Columbia are trying to regroup and determine how to help community residents who are displaced from their homes by forest fires that have threatened the city of Kelowna and left scores of people in suburbs homeless. More than 20,000 residents have been evacuated in recent weeks, with more than half still unable to return to their homes.

At least one clergy member in the diocese of Kootenay, a retired priest (who could not be contacted), lost his home, as did a number of parishioners in the parish of St Andrew, in Kelowna's Mission district. St Andrew's incumbent, the Revd Michael Karabelas, said it is difficult to assess how his congregation is faring in the crisis since many Mission residents are still under evacuation.

"Many parishioners, we're still unsure about," said Mr Karabelas, who was able to return to his house recently but whose church is still under evacuation. Those who were evacuated have registered their names with emergency personnel, but some are staying in evacuation centres, others with family and friends in the area.

Last week, when the fires reached Kelowna, Mr Karabelas was attending the consecration of a bishop in the diocese of Northern Mexico, Kootenay's companion diocese. At one point, he and his wife, Heather, heard from back home that the church and their home had almost certainly burned in the fire. "We got another call the next day [saying] that both were spared," said Mr Karabelas. "Heather and I both fell on the floor in tears."

When St Andrew's was put on evacuation notice, parishioners were able to remove valuables from the church building: vestments, chalices, even a baby grand piano and baroque organ. A second Kelowna church is no longer under evacuation. The Revd David Griffin, incumbent at the church of St Mary, said August 26 that while he is not aware of any members of his congregation losing their homes, about half are still scattered by the evacuation.

Barb Liotscos, executive assistant to Archbishop David Crawley, said several members of Kelowna's cathedral of St Michael and All Angels lost their homes. Still, she said, with so many losing their homes, she is amazed by the resilience of the area's residents. "I was talking to the people at Trinity Baptist Church (a main evacuation centre) and they have all the volunteers they need," said Ms Liotscos.

Archbishop David Crawley, his wife, Joan Bubbs, and their daughter were evacuated the weekend of August 23-24 but were allowed back to their home on August 26 when the fire danger subsided. He said the family had been put on notice that they might be evacuated, so they had time to pack valuables in their holiday trailer.

While news of the larger Kelowna fire has eclipsed that of Barriere, the fires continue to burn in the small community north of Kamloops. Some 70 homes - or about 20 per cent of the houses in the community - burned in a fire in early August.

Ken Platz, warden at Barriere's Church of the Redeemer said none of the 20 or so people who attend the church regularly lost their homes. Many parishioners volunteered in the community with the disaster relief, sorting clothes, answering phones or simply by being available in the church for counseling.

Leanne Larmondin is Editor of the Anglican Journal