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A wildfire spreads to Ashcroft Reserve, near Loon Lake, B.C. on July 16. Photo courtesy of Shawn Cahill, Wikimedia Commons

United churches offer respite during British Columbia's weeks-long wildfire crisis

By Pieta Woolley

In July, Rev. Linda McLaren was enjoying some media-free time on study leave at the Vancouver School of Theology when one of her course-mates read a text asking for prayers for the people affected by the fires. What fires?

It turns out, wildfires burned toward St. Andrew's United Church, McLaren’s congregation, in Williams Lake, B.C., in the interior of the hot, dry province. Over the next weeks, more than 40,000 British Columbians were evacuated from their homes and nearly one million hectares burned — a new annual record.

McLaren left immediately for Williams Lake, as highways closed behind her. Once there, she and her elderly congregation sprung into action: providing a coffee service to the hundreds of RCMP officers who had come, donating food and money — and more. The flurry lasted one week.

“On evacuation day, there was this incredible calm in the community,” McLaren recalls. “In a car, it took eight hours to drive 197 kilometres. Throughout the journey, I kept connected to the congregation through Facebook and email, just reminding them of who we are, that we are still a community and a people of faith and to hold each other in prayer.”

Out of the misery caused by the wildfires — including property loss, the unrelenting heavy smoke, and the constant threat of another evacuation order — two positives emerged.

First, the local pastoral fellowship, previously fractured by theological differences, has bonded through working alongside each other, says McLaren. As a group, they’d been brought back to Williams Lake early to help returning locals make sense of their losses. Now, there has emerged an ongoing ecumenical service group.

Second, McLaren developed a new appreciation for the role social media can play in providing pastoral care.

Meanwhile, down the highway, Kamloops (B.C.) United Church was on scene as 25,000 fire evacuees streamed into that city. The congregation opened its air-conditioned facility to anyone needing a break from the smoke while promoting its thrift store, its shower service (with the YMCA) and its regular Sunday afternoon free meal to the evacuees. The smoke is so heavy in Kamloops, one youth soccer camp is using the church’s basement to run programs.

“One sermon title from this time is ‘Living in the big smoke,’” says Kamloops’ Rev. Bruce Comie. “How do we live in it? By helping each other. By being each other’s neighbours.”

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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