In this extensive feature, Matt Gardner, communications officer for the Anglican Church of Canada, details the experience and aftermath of the British Columbia summer wildfires – the worst on record – from an Anglican perspective.
This summer’s wildfire season was the worst-ever recorded in British Columbia’s history. Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, hundreds of buildings were destroyed, and much of the province’s livestock was put at risk. As of 28 September, more than 100 wildfires were still burning across the province.
Much of the devastation impacted Anglicans residing within the Territory of the People. For some, the threat of the encroaching fires forced the evacuation of friends and neighbours, while others were made to flee and leave their own homes. At the height of the evacuations, many Anglican clergy and lay people provided assistance and pastoral care to evacuees.
“One way or another, every single parish in our territory was affected,” said the Very Revd Ken Gray, currently serving as episcopal commissary during the sabbatical of Bishop Barbara Andrews.
Experience of evacuated parishes
In certain parishes, particularly 100 Mile House, Alexis Creek, and Williams Lake, residents were evacuated as the fire threatened buildings and parishioners’ homes. Meanwhile, major centres such as Kamloops and Prince George took in large numbers of evacuees.
The Revds. Kris and Keith Dobyns – who share positions serving St Timothy’s Anglican Church in 100 Mile House and St Peter’s Anglican Church in Williams Lake, as well as St Luke’s Anglican Church in Alexis Creek – were among those evacuated in July. Days after the fires began near their home in 100 Mile House, Kris received a warning from fire volunteers going door-to-door that she might have to leave.
“About 45 minutes before the evacuation, all of this black smoke started billowing in. . . I live downtown, and it looked pretty ominous,” she recalled. “My neighbours were out and they all decided to leave. They had ash falling in their backyards.”
Making the decision to evacuate, Dobyns packed and left a note with her name and phone number on her front door. She stayed with parishioners just outside the evacuation zone on a Sunday night before leaving early Monday morning. After meeting up with Keith, who had been away visiting their grandson in Ontario, they drove to stay with their son and his family in Abbotsford.
Two weeks later, officials re-opened 100 Mile for residents to return, and the couple returned home. But when fire threatened the surrounding areas of Elephant Hill and Canim Lake, Kris ended up leaving for Abbotsford for a few more days on the advice of Bishop Andrews.
“It was just so smoky and there had been more evacuations on both sides of us,” Dobyns said. “Our bishop was visiting to provide pastoral care and all these other evacuations had happened, and she looked at me and said, ‘You need a break.’”
During that time, members of the Canim Lake Band were themselves evacuated following a lightning strike and ended up in 100 Mile.
Partnering with the Stemete7uw’I Friendship Centre – which is located next to St Timothy’s – to help care for evacuees, Anglicans joined band members for a potluck attended by Bishop Andrews, during which they brought food and other items such as clothing.
“We have a free store at our church that can be opened at any point,” Dobyns said. “So we opened that up for people who needed clothing or blankets, because they had just had to leave in the middle of the night with no warning.”
Providing care to evacuees
In larger urban centres where many of those evacuated ended up, Anglican clergy were on the frontlines of helping evacuees.
The Revd Isabel Healy-Morrow, regional dean for Kamloop-South Rivers, spent time at two areas set up by authorities to receive people evacuated from their homes in communities such as 100 Mile House, Clinton, Ashcroft, and Cache Creek. One was the Kamloops Powwow Grounds, where a cluster of tents and travel trailers had sprung up.
“I would go down and sit and visit with families, drink coffee with them, play with the children, and give them someone to vent their anxieties to,” Healy-Morrow said. “Those in the ranching industry were consumed with anxiety about their livestock.”
With a background in farming and ranching, Healy-Morrow was able to converse with fleeing ranchers about the evacuation of cattle and other livestock. Many horses were evacuated and taken to the Kamloops Exhibition Grounds and nearby farms.
For the evacuated people themselves, many had left quickly and been compelled to leave behind essentials such as prescriptions and clean clothing. At a second, indoor reception area, the Interior Community Savings Arena, hundreds of cots were set up, while provincial Emergency Social Services provided food, clothing, toiletries, and other benefits.
At the arena, Healy-Morrow encountered a group of First Nations elders from the coastal community of Bella Coola, who were unable to home after a Vancouver conference due to the Hanceville wildfire blocking the road from Williams Lake.
“There was no indication as to when it might be safe to travel,” she recalled. “I was able to provide a pastoral presence, hug people, [and] hand out water and snacks and pamphlets showing the location of St Paul’s Cathedral, where evacuees were welcome to drop in and rest, pray, or talk.”
Healy-Morrow also visited evacuees who had been admitted to the emergency room at Royal Inland Hospital after experiencing cardiac and breathing issues, due to the cumulative effects of stress and poor air quality resulting from smoke, ash, and particulate matter – a particular health risk for those suffering from conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“They were glad of a smile, a hug, someone to sit by their bed and talk, pray if requested, and bring them coffee and snacks,” she said.
“The pastoral presence of the clergy was appreciated by the evacuees, and it was clear that a smile and a hug went a long way to those who were frantic with anxiety over the possible loss of their homes and assets.”
Though the wildfires have subsided since their summer peak, residents in affected communities now find themselves dealing with the aftermath of the destruction.
Though the height of the summer wildfire season in British Columbia may have passed, the efforts of communities to rebuild in its wake remain ongoing.
Anglicans residing within the Territory of the People have been on the front lines of devastation caused by the fires. Driving out to St Luke’s Anglican Church in the Chilcoten area, the Revd Kris Dobyns witnessed the scope of the damage first-hand.
“It was awful driving out there,” Dobyns said. “You could just see the burned trees on both sides. . . You could see maybe a chimney and a fire place, and the whole house just burned to ashes.
“We saw a place where there were six or seven cars just completely burned out . . . just devastating. It’s going to take years to recover.”
All residents in the area were affected by the large amounts of smoke that billowed into the air over a protracted period. The poor air quality could reach dangerous levels for weeks at a time, putting at particular risk those with respiratory health issues.
Meanwhile, the effect on livestock threatened the livelihood of ranchers, with many of the 35,000 cattle in fire-affected regions remaining unaccounted for.
“A lot of our folks who are ranchers are of course devastated,” episcopal commissary Ken Gray said.
“They’ve lost fencing, they’ve lost animals, they’ve lost grazing land, they’ve lost forest cover. . . In terms of the area the territory covers . . . the effect on ranchers and the effect on the forest industry is huge.
“That’s going to affect local economies, and it’s going to affect parish fiscal stability as well.”
In Kamloops, where Gray serves as dean of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, the city has experienced a significant increase in homelessness. Many have been displaced from their home communities, and Anglicans active in shelter ministry are expecting an increase in demand. Some workers have opted not to return, prompting a labour shortage in communities such as Williams Lake and Cache Creek.
The economic repercussions of the fires are prominent in the mind of the Revd Jim White, a retired Anglican priest and non-Indigenous pastoral elder who sometimes provides ministry to the First Nations community in Lytton, as well as at an ecumenical parish in Logan Lake.
“My biggest concern right now is the number of small businesses that are going to survive the next year,” White said. He offered the example of Cache Creek Golf Course, which recently closed because not enough people could reach the golf course to provide the necessary revenue for it to stay in business.
“I am somewhat pessimistic that the businesses that are in existence today will be here a year from now,” he added.
In response, local Anglicans are making a push for residents to “buy local” in order to support small businesses in the area.
At the peak of the fire, residents worked together to help each other out wherever they could. During the month of July, White’s son putting in 1,300 hours of volunteer hours as a volunteer firefighter along with his crew.
At another point, when the town of Ashcroft lost utilities, including electricity and phone service, his neighbour used a portable generator and extension cord to help people recharge their mobile phones.
“It’s things you don’t think of,” White said.
In the wake of the fire, affected communities have worked together to rebuild and persevere. The decreasing level of wildfires since summer has in its own way helped restore a greater sense of normalcy for residents.
“Anxiety levels are significantly reduced,” Gray said. “Air quality has significantly improved. Really, especially in the smaller communities, folks are getting back on their feet.”
Nevertheless, the emotional toll has affected many residents and prompted the creation of mutual support groups. In Williams Lake and 100 Mile House, Dobyns and her husband Keith have attended meetings as part of the 2017 Wildfire Recovery Mental Health Working Group, with pastors’ fellowships in both towns working to address mental health issues amidst the recovery.
Anglicans in other parts of the country have also come together in a variety of ways to provide aid for communities impacted by the wildfires. Gray said the Territory of the People has received donations totalling more than $35,000 [CAD, approximately £20,700 GBP] from individuals and organisations such as the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, with the money being sent to clergy for use in their discretionary funds to help individuals resettle and rebuild.
A moving symbolic gesture came when Dobyns attended the recent provincial synod executive council as a delegate and saw more than 70 prayer shawls brought by a priest from Vancouver Island, whose parish had decided to make the shawls to help support the Territory of the People during the fires.
Taking six of the prayer shawls back to the cathedral, Dobyns distributed them at a joint annual worship service and potluck for the 100 Mile House and Williams Lake parishes. The shawls were received so enthusiastically that she planned to return and pick up more.
“People were so moved to receive those. . . It is so comforting to know that people have been praying for you, and to wrap yourself in what feels like a blanket of prayers,” Dobyns said.
The Revd Clara Plamondon brings prayer shawls from the Diocese of British Columbia during a visit to St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Kamloops.
Photo: Rae Long / Anglican Church of Canada
With the continued exacerbation of wildfire seasons due to climate change, British Columbia communities are pondering how they might minimise further wildfire damage in the years to come.
Later this autumn, St Paul’s Cathedral in Kamloops will host a meeting of community leaders and care providers to examine lessons from this year’s fires and how they might incorporate them moving forward.
“Something like this is going to be the new normal, and we’re wondering what we can do now to ensure an effective and appropriate response next year,” Gray said.
“Both in Prince George and Kamloops, I think the community response was extremely good,” he added. “Folks mobilised very quickly and very effectively. But we’re going to have to organise not just for this year, but . . . for the foreseeable future. I think that’s worth noting.”