It was a Thursday night when residents first noticed the fires. The pastor had been in a meeting with his church members at the time and came home to find that his family was making space for a mother and daughter who had been forced to flee from their home by the rising flames. Over the next few days, the pastor would be inundated with more stories like this as more and more people were driven from their houses by the threat of the oncoming fires.
“I guess overall, I would say it’s been very surreal,” says a local pastor. He was one of four pastors in his local area near Kelowna, British Columbia. “Our hearts are going out to the people affected by the fires, but it has been hard to minister to them and put a crisis plan into action when some of us were being evacuated ourselves.”
“My son and I were watching the fire from the roof of our house,” says the pastor, “and seeing how fast it travelled in only 3 hours. We’re not experts, but it seemed to us like some of the flames must have been 100 to 200 feet high at certain points.”
Still, the pastor said that some people in his community felt like the events they were seeing were confined to the other side of the lake. “The wind was so very powerful,” he says, “but it was blowing to the north, so obviously the communities in that direction were the most at risk.” But the wind kept shifting, and by Friday evening, it had started to blow in another direction.
At one point, the pastor was standing outside with one of his neighbours, debating whether or not they ought to evacuate. “As we debated, a chunk of embers the size of my hand fell from the sky and hit the ground near me. I told my neighbour, I guess we’d better get prepared to go!”
Embers and ashes were falling from the sky near the airport – a full 8 kilometres away.
While the fire could obviously burn along the ground or pass from tree to tree, nobody expected it to jump over the Okanagan Lake. Unknown to many in the community at the time, embers and ashes were falling from the sky near the airport – a full 8 kilometres away from where the fires were burning.
The pastor relates how this sky-borne fire spread to the home of a man from his congregation.
“He could have never seen it coming, but a chunk of burning bark fell from the sky into his backyard. The falling, burning debris caused the blaze to start right behind his house. And just like that, the wildfire had leapt over the lake.”
As many community members have fled with their trailers and RVs, local churches, with the help of their pastors, opened their parking lots to give people space. The pastor we interviewed took people into his own home, while others took shelter at the local mall or at least in the mall parking lot. Still, the pastor estimates that a quarter of his own congregation has been displaced.
As ADRA Canada sets out to raise funds to help those affected by the fires, we think of community leaders like this pastor who selflessly gave their own time and resources to love their neighbours – even as the unthinkable unfolded around them. Their local example reminds us of our duty to love our neighbours – including those who live far away. Now, it remains for generous people across Canada to counteract the night when fire leapt over a lake with love that leaps over a nation.