As Fort McMurray wildfire rages, Alberta bishop grateful for lack of deaths

A handout photo provided by the Government of Alberta shows a massive wildfire raging near Fort McMurray, Alberta. The entire population of Fort McMurray has been evacuated because of the wildfire. (CNS photo/Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta via EPA)
A handout photo provided by the Government of Alberta shows a massive wildfire raging near Fort McMurray, Alberta. The entire population of Fort McMurray has been evacuated because of the wildfire. (CNS photo/Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta via EPA)

by Catholic News Service

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As firefighters fought to save Fort McMurray from a wildfire that threatened to destroy the northern Alberta city, a bishop gave thanks that there had been limited loss of life, and none as a direct result from the flames.

St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio, whose diocese includes Fort McMurray, also said in a statement Wednesday that the city's St. Paul Church is rumored to have been destroyed in the blaze that forced the evacuation of the city's entire population the previous day. There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.

On Friday, a letter from the Vatican to Terrio offered Pope Francis’ prayers to the people affected by the Fort McMurray blaze.

In the letter, Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin shared that the pope “was saddened to learn of the destruction and distress caused by the extensive fires around Fort McMurray, and he assures you of his prayers for all the displaced, especially the children, who have lost their homes and livelihoods.”

In a second statement Thursday, Terrio said that as the extent and the dimensions of the wildfire becomes more known, “there follows a great sense of loss and grief.

“We must be sensitive and extra supportive for them not just because of their material losses but also because of their emotional and personal deprivations. We must be good listeners but above we must support them in and through prayers,” the St. Paul bishop wrote.

Terrio also said he had sent two priests to a vacated rectory in Lac La Biche, where the center of fire-fighting operations moved Thursday, to assist with the evacuation in that area.

The National Observer reported Friday that overnight the wildfire had grown from 85,000 hectares (210,000 acres) to 101,000 hectares (249,000 acres), or an area larger than the city of Edmonton. Officials predicted the fire, though it appeared moving away from populated areas, could continue to burn for weeks in the forests, especially in the absence of precipitation.

“Right now we really do need some rain. There’s no question about it," Chad Morrison, an Alberta government wildfire manager, said at a news conference.

As of Friday, no deaths had been reported as a result of the flames, according to The Globe and Mail. However, two people died in a car crash in the midst of the evacuation. So far, more than 80,000 people have been evacuated from the city in the center of Canada's oil sands. 

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

"Really, this in itself constitutes a major achievement," the bishop said. "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."

The entire neighborhood of Beacon Hill appeared to be lost, according to local officials, while the fire had spread to other neighborhoods. Officials said they feared the fire could worsen.

"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,'" he said.

The Edmonton Journal reported on Thursday that insurance losses from the wildfire couple reach as high as $9 billion.

Terrio said that as the full extent of loss and damage becomes to be known, the whole community would be called upon to help rebuild and resettle the city. The diocese planned a second collection at all Masses May 7-8 as a first step for the relief effort and to support all those who lost their homes.

In his update Thursday, Terrio said the diocese will add a second collection for the weekend of May 21-22, and that the neighboring dioceses of Edmonton and Grouard-McLennan will hold second collections at parish Masses for the next two weekends, as well.

“This a beautiful example of Catholic communities reaching out to each other in time of need and I am very grateful to them for both the gesture and the generosity,” Terrio said. 

[NCR staff writer Brian Roewe provided updates to this report.]

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