Wildfires in Canada Wildfires in Canada  (AFP or licensors)

Canadian priest relies on faith and perseverance to flee wildfires

Fr. Marek Pisarek, OMI, Parish Priest in Yellowknife, Canada, tells Vatican News of the struggles to evacuate some 20,000 people for a 1,500 km single lane drive, with a handful of gas stations, amid the blazing wildfires threatening their city in the nation's Northwest Territories. He thanks God everyone has been evacuated and is now safe.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

Father Marek Pisarek, OMI, has embraced his missionary ministry in the Canadian North, serving the faithful living in the territory as a Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate - OMI Lacombe Canada.

His parish, St. Patrick's Catholic Church, in Yellowknife, is within the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in Canada’s Northwest Territories, recently overrun by the terrifying wildfires that have caused mass evacuations under emergency conditions.

Four hundred and fifty kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, the city of Yellowknife is the capital of the Territories. It is home to one of the largest settlements with some 20,000 residents in the sparsely populated north.

“I'm currently in Saint Albert in the Oblate house, and like everybody, was evacuated from Yellowknife,” he shared.

“The whole town is evacuated. The church stayed empty, the Blessed Sacrament was consumed. We pray that we will be able to come back.”

“It is a long way to evacuate, “ Fr. Marek says, noting most people “are in Edmonton, Calgary or wherever else in between."

He shared with Vatican News the practical nightmares those escaping had to endure.

“Most people drive, but it's 1,500 km of driving and the first 700 km is driving through nowhere. There is only one gas station between, and the only other thing is just the forest.”

There, he admits, lie the greatest challenges: the distances and finding places to stay.

Isolated, driving through burnt forest

He described travelling the one lane highway for 750 kilometers to the town of High Level, but with only one petrol station along the way, and always traveling hundreds of kilometers to reach other ones.

“There is no cell phone or internet coverage in between. We practically drove through the dried forest, half of which was burned in some places.”

Most of the trip went well, he reassured. “But it's long distance driving....two days driving normally, and with 20,000 people fleeing by car, and only one gas station, it's creating big traffic jams and big challenges.”

Normally the journey would take 15 or 20 hours of driving. This time, however, he said, "it took more like 25, 30 hours, and many cars were full of people and sometimes with animals and all their belongings. It was a different drive than normal.”

Camping in fields, sleeping in cars

“Many people were just camping on the fields or sleeping in a car,” he said. "For now," he said, "we need a prayer and hopefully we soon can come back and that we will have (a place) where to come back."

Wildfire evacuations in Yellowknife
Wildfire evacuations in Yellowknife

From what he understands, “It doesn't sound like the city is in danger itself. It's more, I would say, probably, precautionary measures.”

He acknowledged it has been a very eventful year. “Earlier we have the evacuees from Bachoco in Yellowknife or from Hay River. Now we need to evacuate ourselves this time.

Father Marek urged all those evacuated at this time to see the current events with eyes of faith.

"It's like today's Gospel where we ask Jesus to have mercy on me, like the women from Cana asking for the Lord's intervention for her daughter. We are kind of in a similar situation. We need to ask Jesus for help and experience the different situations in our lives.”

“But I think everybody is safe and sound, and that's the main thing,” he said.

Latest on Canadian wildfires

In the most recent reports, record-setting wildfires in Canada's western province of British Columbia are expected to push more people out of their homes this week, as fires destroy properties and close parts of a major national highway.

According to Reuters, the province imposed an emergency late on Friday, giving officials more power to deal with the risks from the fires. By Saturday, more than 35,000 residents were under an evacuation order and another 30,000 were under an evacuation alert.

The McDougall Creek fire is centered around Kelowna, a city some 300 kilometres east of Vancouver, with a population of about 150,000.

Severe drought has also produced other fires which have been reported closer to the U.S. border and in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

Family members camping out in parking lot as they flee from McDougal Creek wildfire threats
Family members camping out in parking lot as they flee from McDougal Creek wildfire threats


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20 August 2023, 13:03