Fire burns near homes outside West Kelowna, B.C., Aug. 18, 2023. OSV News photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters

Wildfire season: it’s all in God’s hands

  • May 8, 2024

Wildfire season is upon Canada again with the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) reporting as of May 5 firefighters nationwide had responded to 738 blazes, 246 originating in Alberta alone.

The federal government, media and environmental groups portend Canada being at risk of a “catastrophic” spring and summer of infernos akin to 2023. The CIFFC’s data denotes there were 6,474 fires in 2023, the second-highest tally of the past five completed seasons (6,525 in 2021). More notably, the roughly 18.5 million hectares of land burned is the most in recorded history. The extent of land burned outpaced the previous high — 7.1 million hectares in 1995 — by more than 260 per cent.

These fires forced 155,000 Canadians to flee their homes. Though displaced individuals and families worried about the uncertain fate of homes and communities, caring family members or generous strangers stepped up to alleviate their emotional turmoil and help them meet their essential needs.

Fr. Gerald Mendoza, a parish priest who serves in the northern Alberta communities of Chateh and Rainbow Lake, said the townships he served received multiple evacuation alerts a year ago. But vacating was not an option for him. As an active member of Chateh’s fire department, he battled these blazes and many others in the area. 

Mendoza and his colleagues have prepared over the past few weeks for what they may confront, reviewing lessons gleaned from their 2023 efforts. 

“All firefighter members of Chateh were asked to gather to defuse, process and put into words what happened in their community, their family and them as responders,” said Mendoza. “The session was like a short PTSD session just to check how we all are, our coping skills and how we defuse stress. Many said they are more ready and more sensitive to the possibility of being evacuated and helping the community again this year. Spiritually, they are preparing for any eventualities that might take place in the coming weeks.”

The pastor added that multiple crew members have assembled emergency bags containing food and other essential items and filled jerry cans with gasoline. 

Bishop Jon Hansen of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese in the Northwest Territories heeded the evacuation call last August as he is not a fire brigade member. He chronicled his journey to safety in a letter published by many Catholic media outlets. The most harrowing event of his evacuation was driving through Enterprise, a hamlet that was almost wholly torched. He described what he beheld as “the closest image to an apocalyptic wasteland that I have ever seen.”

Hansen has travelled to different parishes to hear parishioners share their evacuation stories and to offer comfort and counsel.

In the immediate aftermath of returning home, Hansen said congregants mainly expressed relief and gratitude. However, as a new wildfire season approaches, some “post-traumatic stress” has emerged as people worry about an unwanted sequel.

Hansen’s advice to any parishioner wracked with nervousness is an extended paraphrase of a four-word maxim that has soothed and empowered believers amid the turbulence of the past few years: God is in control.

“Sometimes it seems like we are in control, but we’re never really in control of our lives,” said Hansen. “We never know what tomorrow will bring. The fires and floods highlight the reality that our human life is fragile. Because we are not in control, we have to put our lives in the control of our Creator. Through our prayers and spiritual life, we can acknowledge that we are small beings in this world and that God is ultimately in charge. We have to put our faith in Him no matter what.”

 He added that “we should aspire to a simplicity in life.”

“If we live a simple life, we don’t have a lot to lose,” said Hansen. “We don’t have to put our faith in possessions and material goods. We are good enough. With just the clothes on our back, we are still God’s gift.”

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