Rescues continue as Canadian wildfire grows in Fort McMurray area

By Gavin Drake
Posted May 6, 2016
Flames and heavy smoke surrounded congested Highway 63 South outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo: DarrenRD via Wikimedia

Flames and heavy smoke surrounded congested Highway 63 South outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo: DarrenRD via Wikimedia

[Anglican Communion News Service] Canadian officials are using military and civilian planes to rescue 8,000 people trapped by the growing wildfire in the Fort McMurray area. The Alberta town’s 88,000 population were evacuated this week but the dramatic spread of the fire means that some of those who have already moved are now in fresh danger.

So far, there are no reported human casualties from the fire; but there are increasing concerns that people may become trapped as the fire spreads. It now covers an area of some 328 square miles.

Some 8,000 people moved north of Fort McMurray to seek sanctuary in oil sands work camps. Half of those have now been rescued and the Canadian authorities are continuing to airlift others to safety in Edmonton and Calgary. Another 17,000 people who moved south are also in danger of being trapped. Authorities hope that it will soon be safe for them to use Highway 63 to move even further south.

A province-wide state of emergency has been declared across Alberta with all fires banned and production halted to prevent further outbreaks of fire. Fort McMurray is in the Diocese of Athabasca. Their bishop, the Rt. Rev. Fraser Lawton, has praised the “kindness and generosity” of the people of Alberta, describing it as “incredible.”

“There have been so many extraordinary stories of people helping those who have been in such need,” he said. “Many of those stories are deeply personal for me. Fort McMurray was my home for 13 years, and I feel the loss along with my family and friends who reside there.

“The past few days have been hectic and chaotic in our office as we’ve tried to keep track of where evacuees have gone, their safety and how we might respond. I can only imagine what it has been like for the evacuees themselves. In spite of this, I continue to be amazed at their patience, faith and attitude.

“Please continue to pray for them, especially as the systems to help them are becoming stressed and stretched. Pray for those who continue to staff operations around Fort McMurray. Pray for firefighters, pilots, emergency workers and those who are directing operations.”

Fraser made his comments in a letter to the people of the diocese. In it, he expressed gratitude to the support they have received “from across Canada and beyond”, saying that “It is consoling to know that people are praying with us and for us in this very difficult time.”

He asks for continued prayer for the clergy on the front line of caring for evacuees in the parishes of Lac La Biche, Northern Lights and Athabasca: the Rev. Lesley Wheeler-Dame, the Rev. Deborah Scheepers, and the Rev. Clive Scheepers, “all of whom have been very busy in providing direct support and care, as well as helping in organizing and directing our efforts, and in helping the synod office in responding,” he said.

“Once it is safe to return to Fort McMurray, we will know the extent of the damage and begin to have an idea of the need,” he continued. “This will be a difficult moment, and may yet be even weeks away. We will need to come together as a family to support those who will face that on a personal level, as well as facing it as the loss we share as family.

“We are committed to not just dealing with building clean-up and rebuilding, but also to the healing of people, communities and the reformation of the church family. We will continue to try and keep parishes updated as to the situation. The diocese will do its best to have current information available and to function as a coordination point.”

In a direct message to Fort McMurray parishioners, Bishop Fraser said: “please know that you are in our hearts and prayers, and that you are our family. We do not know what you are going through, but do know that we care about you and want to be there for you.”