Churches, so far, spared from wildfires

View of the West Kelowna wildfire from the downtown marina. Dozens of structures have been destroyed by fires in B.C., although no churches have been lost. (Photo by Ian Rodgers, The BC Catholic, CCN)

By Quinton Amundson, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Wildfires wreaking devastation across British Columbia and the Northwest Territories have apparently spared Catholic churches, though numerous other buildings cannot say the same thing.

As of Aug. 22, more than 50 structures were confirmed to be destroyed or partially destroyed in West Kelowna, B.C., and most of Enterprise, NWT, has been destroyed. Firefighters were making good progress in their battle with B.C fires, and a fire that forced the evacuation of Yellowknife, the territory’s capital, was being contained — by firefighting tactics and helped by light rain.

The Catholic Register had been in touch several times with Bishop Jon Hansen of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese, and each time Hansen indicated he has not yet heard of any parishes from the six pastoral regions he oversees experiencing damage.

However, considering over 30,000 people throughout the territory — including all 20,000-plus citizens of Yellowknife — were ordered to evacuate, it is nearly impossible for Hansen to have live updates about the churches. He is currently sheltering in Grande Prairie with his brother and niece and is avidly logging on to to keep up to date with the firefighting effort.

Hansen provided the email update he sent to parishioners the day after he completed his 12-hour evacuation drive from Yellowknife to Alberta. He described the devastation of motoring through Enterprise, a hamlet described as “90-per-cent gone” following the fiery destruction.

“I drove through there …. and it was the closest image to an apocalyptic wasteland that I have ever seen,” wrote Hansen.

Meanwhile, over 35,000 British Columbians are affected by evacuation orders due to the more than 380 wildfires currently raging in the province, which is under a state of emergency. Some of the frontline locations of the fiery battle in B.C. include Shuswap Lake, Lake Country and West Kelowna. On Aug. 18, West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund grimly described what unfolded the night before as “100 years’ worth of firefighting in one night.”

Heather Wipfli, executive assistant to Bishop Gregory Bittman of the Nelson diocese, said only one parish in this volatile region was on evacuation alert over the weekend: St. Edward’s Church in Winfield, B.C., which is a neighbourhood and ward of Lake Country. However, the order had been lifted as of Aug. 20.

Fr. Obi Ibekwe and Fr. Biju Anthony transported the Blessed Sacrament and the Holy Oils on Aug. 19 to St. Pius X Church in Kelowna, a natural destination considering Ibekwe is the senior pastor of both St. Edward’s and St. Pius.
Ibekwe wrote in the Aug. 20 St. Pius X bulletin that “the fires have come upon us so swiftly. Please know that Fr. Biju and I are praying for you: for your safety and protection and that our dear Lord may bring an end to the fires. We are thinking of you.”

The pastor also shared the anecdote of how he experienced a joyful, spiritual encounter with God and Our Lady of Guadalupe while in Mexico at a low point in his life. He relayed this personal story to remind his flock that even though it is hard “to experience the presence of God at the time of loss. God is always there,” and we are called to believe “He is still working. He is working for my good. His goodness is running after me.”

Hansen said despite the hardships he has witnessed the best of humanity amid despair. During his drive, he saw many farmyards in northern Alberta that “were freshly mowed and had big, hand-painted signs, offering free camping to all those equipped with tents and RVs.”

“The next few days are now just a matter of waiting to see what will happen next,” wrote Hansen. “All our staff and clergy are safe and accounted for, although they have been scattered to the wind by plane and by road. Keep the prayers coming as we ask for the miracle of rainfall in abundance for our parched land.”