Priest on the front lines of Alberta wildfires

Fr. Gerald Mendoza (third from left) of the Chateh , AB fire department, with three others standing in front of the local Dene Thà Community School. (Photo submitted by Fr. Mendoza, The Catholic Register - CCN)

Fr. Mendoza brings priestly presence to fire service

By Quinton Amundson, The Catholic Register

[Canadian Catholic News] – Heavy rainfall throughout the province of Alberta over the May long weekend potentially signaled a hopeful turning point in the effort to quell the 2023 wildfire state of emergency. But it has been the tireless efforts of firefighters across the Prairie province that have supplied most hope since the fires erupted last month during an abnormally dry spring for Alberta.

Among the more than 3,000 men and women combatting the flames — including 2,900 firefighters from 17 agencies, many more from municipal and county emergency services as well as 400 Canadian soldiers — is Fr. Gerald Mendoza.

RELATED: Wildfires put Alberta parishes on alert – LINK

Mendoza is the pastor at Our Lady of Assumption Parish in Chateh, Alta., and St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Rainbow Lake, Alta. These remote northern communities are nestled within a few kilometres of the Alberta/British Columbia border.

Mendoza, who has served the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan for over a decade, first became immersed in the 2023 wildfire battle at the beginning of May.

“On May 3, a fire started in Rainbow Lake, and we were asked to volunteer there,” said Mendoza. “The following day we were asked to stand by. We thought we would be going to (Rainbow Lake) again, but nothing happened. We were asked for the next several days to remain on red alert.”

Six days later, on May 9, there were two fires in Chateh, one of which was in front of the Dene Thà Community School, and the other was a bushfire.

“By 3 p.m. we were dealing with both fires at the same time,” said Mendoza. “We worked to save the community. We ended the fire at 11 o’clock. The following day we examined if there were any spot fires and we found out that everything was clear.”

The evening of May 13, Alberta Wildfire called for the community of Chateh to evacuate because of the ongoing threat. Mendoza said that “day began calmly,” but he detected that trouble could potentially be in the offing.

“Since I have a parish, I watered the lawn so in case there was a grassfire, it would not spread to the Church. By 10 a.m. that day we began to see ashes falling from the sky at half an inch. By 3 p.m. it was one inch and by 5 p.m. it was two inches. Our bishop asked me to secure my passport and all the Church records. They are safe to this day in my car.

“At 7 p.m., as I was on my way out of the community, I passed the fire hall and saw that two volunteers were there. I decided, ‘ah, I’ll just stay put.’ I decided to stay because I was the priest of the community, and I had no family living anywhere close to the area.”

Mendoza has continued to combat fires, including one on May 19, in addition to completing duties around the fire hall, including watering the plants, hauling water, ensuring the generator in the school remains operational and feeding the dogs.

He first began volunteer firefighting in High Level, Alta., where he served from 2014-18. He then served the fire detachment in Red Earth Creek, Alta., from 2020-23 before his current assignment in Chateh.

Fr. Nel Esguerra, who serves as a volunteer firefighter in Peace River, inspired Mendoza because of how he stepped up to combat the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire.

“I saw the photos and I felt inspired that there is a need for us (priests) to be of service to the community,” said Mendoza.

Though mindful of not appearing to be “showy,” Mendoza said he tries to bring a “priestly presence” to the fire hall by praying the rosary in his firefighting gear.

As of May 23, there were still over 10,000 Albertans evacuated from their homes because of the wildfires. There are 71 active wildfires, which have consumed more than 945,000 hectares. A special air quality statement remains over most of Alberta, with smoke from the fires causing poor air quality and reduced visibility.