Western fires wreak havoc

A child points through smoky air 2.5 km from the main campus of the Sorrento Centre Aug. 26. The Anglican-operated retreat and conference centre in the Shuswap region of B.C. was evacuated for eight days starting Aug. 18 as a wildfire raged nearby. A child points through smoky air 2.5 km from the main campus of the Sorrento Centre Aug. 26. The Anglican-operated retreat and conference centre in the Shuswap region of B.C. was evacuated for eight days starting Aug. 18 as a wildfire raged nearby. Photo: Mary Scheidegger
Published September 6, 2023

PWRDF starts fund for in-Canada emergencies as blazes spur N.W.T. exodus, claim B.C. Anglican camp

Wildfires in western Canada this summer forced residents to evacuate from Yellowknife, disrupting ministry in the already logistically difficult diocese of the Arctic, and all but destroyed an Anglican summer camp in the Okanagan Valley. In response, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) created a new fund for emergency responses inside Canada, which received $22,000 in donations in its first week.

Evacuee vehicles line up to use the only gas pumps between Yellowknife and High Level, Alta. Photo: Alexander Pryor

Fires in the Northwest Territories forced about 19,000 people to evacuate Yellowknife Aug. 18, sending out a long line of cars to the south towards Alberta.

Among the evacuees was David Parsons, bishop of the diocese of the Arctic. The number of cars leaving the city turned distances that normally only took a few hours into all-day drives, he said. Ministering to the remote communities in the diocese of the Arctic is logistically challenging at the best of times, said Parsons, beginning with booking affordable travel. And with the evacuation disrupting communication between members of his team and the uncertainty brought by the wildfires in general, he said he didn’t yet know the full impact it would have on his ministry work.

Also evacuated was Alexander Pryor, the diocese’s executive archdeacon. Pryor said the scale of the exodus was overburdening to the local infrastructure. Most towns in the area, he said, have a single road in or out and the only gas station outside Yellowknife for the first 400 km has just four pumps.

There will be more and increasingly difficult challenges as the crisis drags on, he added. Many people who left in the evacuation were already underhoused and there may be no way to find them to help them get back home if they can’t find a place to stay and end up mixed into the existing unhoused populations in Edmonton or Calgary—not to mention all the people who don’t know whether the homes they had will still be there when they return.

To the south, in B.C.’s southern interior, wildfires brought destruction and more evacuation orders. Speaking with the Journal Aug. 21, Charlotte Hardy, camp coordinator at Okanagan Anglican Camp (OAC), north of Kelowna, described the situation in and around the town as “absolutely insane.” The camp had been evacuated to Kelowna the evening of Aug 17. At first those at the camp, Hardy said, couldn’t see the fires, located as they were on the other side of a ridge—until finally they noticed huge plumes of smoke rising behind the camp.

“So we weren’t affected by the fire until all of a sudden, we were,” she said.

OAC staff pictured a few hours before the Aug. 17 evacuation. Left to right are Sophie Stirrett, Maia Embregts and Lola King. Photo: Charlotte Hardy

Spurred by news of the fire’s severity and the number of parents already coming to pick up their children, Hardy and other senior staff made the decision to evacuate. They and the remaining campers climbed in a bus and left the site of their own accord at around 8:30 p.m., she said.

Just a few minutes later, they heard the evacuation order for the area.

In Kelowna, staff and the few campers still waiting to be picked up by their parents stayed overnight at the Cathedral Church of St. Michael and All Angels and awaited news of the camp. OAC director Ian Dixon confirmed later that day that the vast majority of the camp had been destroyed in the fire, including staff quarters, residence building, dining hall, crafts and program building and dock.

“I started volunteering when I was 13; I’m now 22 … So it was kind of a bittersweet, weird moment for a lot of us who have been there for the [past] 10 years. Last day [of camp] for the foreseeable future,” said Hardy.

A pastoral letter from Archbishop Lynne McNaughton, bishop of the diocese of Kootenay, that same day announced that the diocesan council would begin discussing the process of rebuilding at its next meeting in September. The first steps would be damage assessment, cleanup and insurance work, she wrote.

“As early as it is safe to do so this fall, we will hold a prayer service at the camp to grieve for what has been lost, to give thanks for what has been,” McNaughton added.

Another Anglican-operated facility, the Sorrento Centre, a conference and retreat centre northeast of Kamloops, evacuated almost 200 guests, plus staff, after an evacuation order Aug. 18, executive director Michael Shapcott said. The order was lifted and people were allowed to return Aug. 26, but as of Aug. 30, flames were still visible from the centre and the situation remained “dynamic and volatile,” he said.

Will Postma, executive director of PWRDF, said setting up a new fund for in-Canada emergencies would offer greater flexibility to distribute money where it’s needed for both and future emergencies. Unlike other funds which are set up to take care of specific projects or disasters, this one will allow PWRDF to find needs and fill them as they arise, he said.

PWRDF’s new fund, announced Aug. 18, raised $22,000 by Aug. 25, $5,000 of which it contributed to relief in the diocese of the Arctic, the agency said. As of late August, that money had been allocated to supporting clergy who were ineligible for the Northwest Territories’ employment interruption relief program, Pryor said.

Despite the stress and congestion of travel, both Pryor and Parsons said people in the surrounding communities did their best to make the journey easier. The town of Peace River, Alta., hosted a barbecue for evacuees, and the people of Fort Providence, provided them with sandwiches in great abundance, Parsons said. In High Level, Alta., he said, there was a wildfire evacuation in 2019, so they knew exactly what the evacuees would need, from fuel to prescriptions.

Pryor said he and his family were staying at a campsite in Alberta while he did his best to keep working from a laptop on a picnic table. He said he’d already heard from clergy in the parishes of St. John’s in Fort Smith and St. Andrew’s in Hay River who were planning how to support their communities when a return up north should become possible.

“We need to be thankful for what we have and to stick together in trusting God, even in these scary times,” Pryor said.


  • Sean Frankling

    Sean Frankling’s experience includes newspaper reporting as well as writing for video and podcast media. He’s been chasing stories since his first co-op for Toronto’s Gleaner Community Press at age 19. He studied journalism at Carleton University and has written for the Toronto Star, WatchMojo and other outlets.

Related Posts

Skip to content