All of us across Canada watched with shock, in early May of 2016, as wildfires engulfed areas around and even in the city of Fort McMurray. Over 100,000 people evacuated the city, wherever the few road arteries to the north and south could take them. There was precious little time to pack up belongings and heirlooms, as families were evacuated quickly, not knowing what they would come back to, whether their homes, neighbourhoods, schools and churches would still be there. Many children were evacuated directly from schools during the fire and were separated from their parents.
Canadian Anglicans gathered to pray and also donate funds to help families in need. PWRDF received funds from parishes, individuals, Episcopal Relief and Development based in New York, all wanting to support those affected. PWRDF worked with the Diocese of Athabasca for initial immediate needs for evacuating families who needed assistance. The Diocese of Edmonton made available further support: food, water, places to stay, help in caring for children, and other necessities to replace what was left behind in Fort McMurray. Bishops Fraser Lawton and Jane Alexander from the Dioceses of Athabasca and Edmonton, respectively, put a high priority on and spent considerable time ensuring care for those being evacuated and keeping communication as open as possible, given that parish members wanted to be assured about how others were doing and that they were safe.
Many families from Fort McMurray, including many parishioners from All Saints’ and St. Thomas, spent the following weeks and even months at the homes of relatives, friends and other temporary accommodations such as college dormitories.
Residents of Fort Chipewyan and other communities in the municipality of Wood Buffalo living and working in Fort McMurray were also evacuated and experienced loss- some losing everything in the fire.
By September, many families had returned to Fort McMurray. The schools that had not been seriously damaged by the fire and smoke had re-opened. Debris had been moved away. But many neighbourhoods were blocked off, their houses burned and destroyed. An estimated 3000 homes were lost to the fires and many others were seriously damaged– siding melted, parts of their homes made uninhabitable and still smelling of smoke.
All Saints’ Church and St. Thomas’ Anglican Church, through Sunday services and other during-the-week gatherings, welcomed parishioners back. On September 10, four months after the fires, parishioners gathered for a beautiful joint Thanksgiving service, with the community, at St. Thomas.’ Gratitude was warmly expressed for firefighters, paramedics, diocesan staff, church wardens, city officials and the many from across Canada who shared encouragement, prayers and donated funds.
PWRDF received over $200,000 in response to the Fort McMurray wildfires. We are grateful for this support for the people of Fort McMurray as they re-enter, re-build and adjust to all the changes, the physical damage but also the emotional trauma of these past four months.
With Naba Gurung, PWRDF’s Humanitarian Coordinator, I visited Fort McMurray to join in the September 10 Thanksgiving Service as well as discussiosn with parishioners as to how best to use the financial resources. With the support of Bishop Lawton, a steering committee was formed with a mandate to identify projects and activities by which individuals and the community can be supported. This may include classroom materials for schools, immediate home repairs and renovations and support for individuals and families most seriously affected by the ordeal.
Bishop Lawton reported that the community is also looking to hire an outreach worker to provide programming and support for affected families. “The focus is on the post-return needs of the community, and is with an intention for ongoing work over a period of a couple of years,” he said.
While I was saddened and shocked by the extent of damage, I was encouraged by the resilience in the community, the care and concern of parish members and other parishioners from outside Fort McMurray – all grateful signs of community members working together for healing, for stability, for regaining a needed and important sense of normalcy and hope for the future.