Evacuated residents rest at a community center May 4 in Anzac, Alberta, after being ordered to be evacuated due to a raging wildfire. The wildfire has forced the evacuation of the entire city of Fort McMurray. CNS photo/Courtesy of Topher Seguin, Reuters

Relief efforts step up as Fort McMurray blaze spreads

By  Evan Boudreau and Mickey Conlon, The Catholic Register
  • May 6, 2016

As firefighters continue the fight to save Fort McMurray from a wildfire that is threatening to consume the entire northern Alberta city, it is feared that St. Paul Church is one of the city’s structures that has been lost to flames.

There has been no confirmation of the church’s loss though, as information is not flowing from the city as the only ones left inside city limits are emergency personnel battling the blaze.

St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio, whose diocese includes Fort McMurray, said in a statement released May 4 that the church is rumoured to have been destroyed in the blaze that forced the evacuation of the whole city’s population May 3. It’s unknown if the other parish in Fort McMurray, St. John the Baptist, has been damaged. It is located next to the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, from which more than 100 patients were evacuated on May 2.

There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries from the fire, though news reports May 5 say two people were killed in an automobile collision.

Terrio said as the community is still in shock with the damage in Fort McMurray, “let us give thanks to our Lord and God that, with some 60-70,000 people evacuated from the community in a matter of hours, there has been no loss of life.”

Officials later set the number of evacuees at almost 90,000.

“Really, this in itself constitutes a major achievement,” wrote Terrio. “I want to thank and commend all the security and firefighting services, the public authorities but especially the good people of Fort McMurray. Once again, the people of Fort McMurray have rallied together and reached out to help and protect each other.”

Almost the entire neighbourhood of Beacon Hill appeared to be lost, according to local officials, while the fire had spread to other neighbourhoods. As the fire spread Tuesday afternoon, the order came to evacuate the city. Conditions did not improve Wednesday and neighbouring towns to the south that had welcomed some evacuees were themselves forced to evacuate as changing weather patterns had sent the fire their way. About 1,500 residents plus those who had taken shelter in Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and Fort McMurray First Nation all had to be evacuated late Wednesday.

Most of those evacuated have been making their way to Edmonton, with others taking shelter in towns between Fort McMurray and the Alberta capital.

In Lac la Biche, about 300 km south of Fort McMurray, more than 1,700 evacuees have registered at the Bold Centre, a multi-purpose athletic and community centre that has been turned into a relief station.

“Most people have been using our facility as a rest stop as they travel south to stay with friends and family,” said Jihad Moghradi, communication co-ordinator for Lac la Biche.

On May 4 about 200 stayed overnight at the Bold Centre which is equipped to sleep 450 on single coats.

To meet the spiritual needs of these migrants, many of whom are believed to be Christians, two Catholic priests have been redirected by Terrio to served at St. Catherine’s parish where the doors are being kept opened from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m.

Fr. Rene Realuyo, pastor of St. Louis’ parish in Bonnyville, and Fr. Andrew Schoenberger, pastor of St. John the Baptist, are expected to arrive in Lac la Biche around 4 p.m. local time May 5. At that time they are to meet with the parish’s deacons — there is currently no parish priest available — to determine the needs of the people and how best to minister to them in the days ahead.

Terrio said that as the full extent of losses and damages comes to be known, the whole community will be called upon to help rebuild and resettle the city. Parishes throughout the diocese will be taking up a second collection at all Masses this weekend as a first step for the relief effort and to support all those who have lost their homes.

The Edmonton archdiocese was also quick to come to its northern neighbour’s aid. Archbishop Richard Smith has requested special collections at Masses over the May 7-8 and 14-15 weekends be taken up in support of the people of Fort McMurray. Edmonton parishes are also collecting goods and clothing to donate to displaced residents, many who escaped with only the clothes they were wearing. A call has also gone out for personal toiletries, diapers and bottled water.

Other dioceses are also stepping up, including the Archdiocese of Toronto, which is accepting donations to help victims. Donations can be made online at archtoronto.org, by call the Development Office at (416) 934-3411 or through parishes.

“This fire disaster is a ‘hard blow’ at a time when Fort McMurray is already struggling under an adverse economic situation,” wrote Terrio, noting the economic slowdown with the worldwide drop in oil prices that has severely affected the local economy in the heart of Canada’s oil country.

“But with our faith, our hope and our love for each other, we shall, as a young local evacuee said on Facebook last night, build a ‘better Fort McMurray.’ ”

Check out our other stories on the wildfire at Fort McMurray:

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