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Canada’s ‘Beast’ wildfire launches DR crews

FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta, Canada (BP) — The “Beast,” a Canadian wildfire that has scorched an area larger in land mass than New York City, forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray in the oil-rich sand reserves of northeast Alberta and spurred Baptist Disaster Relief workers into action.

With Canadian Baptist Disaster Relief workers already on site, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief teams are standing by to deploy if necessary.

Although firefighters and favorable weather conditions have helped stem the fire’s growth, it continues to burn vast acreage of forest. The oil-sand reserves are one of Canada’s major energy sources and provide jobs for most Fort McMurray families.

The wildfire halted oil production and forced evacuation of the entire city of 80,000 people. Fort McMurray evacuees are pouring into major cities like Edmonton, which is five hours away, leaving virtually all possessions behind after officials locked down the city.

The Canadian National Baptist Convention is responding to the evacuees’ needs through the Canadian Global Response (CGR) organization by assembling baskets with basic items such as dishes, glasses, cutlery, toilet paper, dish soap, PowerBars, sponges and kitchen towels, said Sarah Ruiz, a CGR administrator.

Volunteers assembled about 100 kits at Dover Court Baptist Church in Edmonton, which church planters and pastors distributed to evacuee families, Ruiz said.

Fort McMurray homeowners may have to wait up to two months before they can return and assess their property damage.

Gerry Taillon, CNBC national ministry leader, said there are two churches in Fort McMurray that cooperate with the convention, and the families of both ministerial staffs evacuated safely.

“Right now we are having conversations with the government and Red Cross Disaster Relief coordinators,” Taillon said. “It is our hope to be of maximum benefit to the relief operation and to involve as many volunteers from our churches in Canada and also from our sister churches in the United States.”

David Melber, vice president of Send Relief for the North American Mission Board said “the devastation of this wildfire is impossible to explain in words.” Melber toured the area May 11-13.

“The sheer size is massive,” Melber said. “But more than that, the trauma to the people of Fort McMurray and the surrounding area is heartbreaking. We are so thankful for the volunteers with the Canadian National Baptist Convention Disaster Relief teams.”

As Canadian officials continue their assessment of infrastructure damage, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief leaders are in Edmonton on standby to offer help to the Canadian NGO Council, which coordinates non-profit activity in disasters.

On Thursday (May 12), the Fort McMurray municipality requested SBDR laundry and cleanup crews to assist first responders in a 700-bed basecamp but later redirected that request to a contractor.

Mickey Caison, NAMB’s national Disaster Relief director; Sam Porter, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma Disaster Relief director; Abraham Shepherd, CGR director; and Melber visited a shelter for 4,500 people today (May 13) in Lac La Biche, an Alberta hamlet about 140 miles northeast of Edmonton.

Melber said the fire response has highlighted CGR’s need for a shower trailer and laundry units — items necessary to support volunteers as well as those affected by the fire.

Ruiz said existing Southern Baptist mobile shower and laundry units are available to serve first responders in Fort McMurray. Ash-out crews — similar to mud-out crews — may also respond if requested.

The provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan are susceptible to summer wildfires caused by lightning strikes. But Mike Flanagan, a wildfire professor at the University of Alberta, told the Canadian Press humans likely caused the “Beast” as no lightning strikes occurred in the area.

Midwest tornadoes

Violent spring weather continues to wreak havoc on America’s midsection, with a series of tornadoes stretching from Oklahoma to Kentucky.

“We had two days of tornadoes, just back to back,” said David Karr, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s state Disaster Relief training director.

Seven tornadoes struck Oklahoma, killing two people and leaving about five towns with 25-30 damaged homes each, Karr said. Damage assessors and chainsaw crews are working along I-35 from the southern to northern state lines.

Southern Baptists’ mass-feeding units are not active, as the American Red Cross is not operating shelters in Oklahoma.

Karr said the BGCO has an assistance hotline for victims to request help: 405-516-4822.

The storm system continued east to Kentucky and on May 10 caused EF3 tornadoes in Mayfield, Greenville, Morganfield and Hartford with winds up to 140 miles per hour that injured 10 people, said Coy Webb, Kentucky Baptist Convention Disaster Relief director.

The tornado in Mayfield, which made national news, was captured on a cell phone video showing a funnel cloud approaching a car lot. Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief has deployed three chainsaw units with volunteers, two chaplain teams and some machinery to assist with clean up and ministry there.

In Ohio County, Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief has deployed a tarping unit and a chainsaw unit with volunteers. The tarping unit worked May 11 placing tarps on damaged roofs of homes and assisting an independent Baptist Church. Chainsaw units began assisting homeowners May 12.

Webb estimates response teams will spend four to 10 days in western Kentucky communities.

Those wishing to donate to SBDR can contact the Baptist convention in their state or visit https://donations.namb.net/dr-donations. For phone donations, call 1-866-407-NAMB (6262) or mail checks to NAMB, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta, GA 30368-6543. Designate checks for “Disaster Relief.”

NAMB coordinates and manages Southern Baptist responses to major disasters through partnerships with 42 state Baptist conventions and the CNBC, most of which have their own state disaster relief ministries.

Southern Baptists have 65,000 trained volunteers, including chaplains, and 1,550 mobile units for feeding, chainsaw, mud-out, command, communication, child care, shower, laundry, water purification, repair/rebuild and power generation.

SBDR is one of the three largest mobilizers of trained Disaster Relief volunteers in the United States, along with the American Red Cross and The Salvation Army.

    About the Author

  • Jim Burton