Catholics in the Diocese of Whitehorse are asking for help after a devastating wildfire in Telegraph Creek, B.C., destroyed a church and many homes, and another fire is threatening to do the same.
“Many people are in complete distress and broken because they are finding themselves with nothing,” said Bishop Hector Vila of Whitehorse in a letter Aug. 8.
By the time the B.C. government announced a province-wide state of emergency Aug. 15, the entire town of Telegraph Creek had been evacuated and residents were reeling after the losses of their homes and of St. Theresa’s mission church and rectory.
Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the Pope’s representative in Canada, offered his prayers for the small, devastated community.
“I am both deeply saddened by the stress and hardship hurting the people of Telegraph Creek,” he said in a letter to Bishop Vila Aug. 6.
“I would like to assure you of the fraternal proximity of Pope Francis to the people of Telegraph Creek affected by this present calamity, and to those who are in any way helping them, kindly asking you to transmit to them his comforting Apostolic Blessing.”
Now, Bishop Vila’s office says another wildfire is coming dangerously close to Holy Family Catholic Mission church and rectory in Lower Post, B.C., as well. At press time Aug. 23, the Lutz Creek fire was burning five kilometres away from the church, and sprinklers were set up to try to save the property.
The Diocese of Whitehorse has been collecting funds for relief efforts in Telegraph Creek and for the rebuilding of St. Theresa’s Mission, and so far crowdfunding efforts and mailed donations have added up to $33,760. Also, Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse has opened its doors to physical donations and offered its entire Sunday collection Aug. 19 for the cause.
“A strong spirit of support and solidarity has been built throughout these three weeks and people are waiting to be allowed to return to see their properties,” said Bishop Vila.
Meanwhile, in other parts of B.C., Catholic communities are so far suffering from heavy smoke and poor air quality more so than the destructive fires themselves.
“The entire diocese, like most of the province of British Columbia, is blanketed with smoke,” said Kim Jacobs, assistant to Bishop Gregory Bittman of Nelson.
She said areas near Keremeos, west of Creston, and east of Kimberley have been affected by wildfires, and a pastor in Kimberley has reported that the entire town is on evacuation alert and several families were under an evacuation order.
“We are praying for all those affected by the wildfires, particularly the first responders who are working tirelessly to gain the upper hand on these disasters,” said Jacobs.
In the Diocese of Kamloops, a spokesperson said the fires are not as bad as they were in 2017.
“We are very fortunate, as a diocese, to not have suffered any losses or damages to any of our parishes, rectories, or schools,” said Claude Julien. However, “the air quality has been hazardous for weeks,” with some cities facing a “Very High” health risk rating from the B.C. government’s Air Quality Health Index. People with heart or breathing problems, children, pregnant women, and the elderly have been encouraged to stay indoors.
Julien added the Diocese of Kamloops has donated $10,000 so far to the Diocese of Whitehorse after Telegraph Creek. The Archdiocese of Vancouver, also facing poor air quality, is encouraging donations to communities suffering from wildfire as well.
At press time, the Telegraph Creek fire had merged with the Alkali Lake fire and grown to an estimated 118,000 hectares in size; 147 firefighters, 9 helicopters, and 18 pieces of heavy equipment were fighting the blaze.
The Lutz Creek fire, near Lower Post, B.C., was at press time zero per cent contained and burning 6,000 hectares. Both fires were caused by lighting.
More information about other wildfires burning across B.C. available here.