Enduring the flames

Priests and parishioners hold to faith as wildfires ravage their communities

On the morning of May 13th, ash two inches thick had blanketed the northern Dene Tha reserve of Chateh, falling from a sky coloured firey red.

Fr. Gerald Mendoza was packing up his passport and all sacrament records from Our Lady of the Assumption Church, certain an evacuation order was eminent. The other community for which he is pastor, Rainbow Lake, was evacuated only a few days earlier.

Fr. Gerald celebrated two Masses that morning – unsure if they would be his last in that church. An RCMP officer who was inspecting various properties in the likelihood of evacuation came into the building as Fr. Gerald was celebrating Mass. The man decided to stay and participate in the liturgy – the only parishioner to join Fr. Gerald that day.

“I was feeling very emotional because anything could happen. I didn’t know if this would be the last time I ever celebrated Mass in that church,” he recalled.

As the evacuation order came through later that day, Fr. Gerald decided to do his part to warn the town by ringing the church bell for several minutes.

“It was a way of alerting people, letting them know that something was happening,” he recalled. “I rang the bell for a full 15 minutes; it was really beginning to hurt my hand pulling on the rope. But there was no sound system outside the church so that was all I could do.”

Fr. Gerald Mendoza with a team of firefighters in Chateh.

It’s a story common to many communities of the archdiocese over this spring. Fox Lake, Garden River, Rainbow Lake, Chateh, East Prairie, Peavine, Atikameg, Gift Lake, Sturgeon Lake, Valleyview and the County of Grande Prairie have all been or continue to be under evacuation order due to wildfires.

The Indigenous community in Fox Lake is particularly suffering with a large wildfire that has destroyed parts of the reserve and has led to all residents being evacuated now for several weeks. In early June, the evacuation orders for Chateh and Rainbow Lake were finally lifted.

After the May 13th evacuation, the only persons that remained in the Chateh area were the Emergency Management Team, working out of the community school. Fr. Gerald Mendoza became part of that team as a volunteer fire fighter. Some of his duties included setting up sprinklers throughout the Chateh community, particularly near homes surrounded by bush and forest, and removing any garbage or potentially flammable materials around the community. He also took on the duties of feeding the stray dogs left behind in Chateh as they came to the fire hall each morning.

Fr. Gerald has been well trained as a volunteer firefighter through his time as parish priest in High Level. He volunteered during the wildfire that threatened that town in 2019.

“I spent more than 12 hours in one day holding the fire hose and trying to keep back the flames,” Fr. Gerald said, recalling the 2019 fire. “It was a very intense experience – we were drenched by the end of it.”

This year Fr. Gerald shifted from his duties as parish priest to firefighter on May 2nd, when the fire near Rainbow Lake set that community on evacuation alert. He travelled there to help them battle and push back the fire, which at that time was only 2 kilometers from town. Rainbow Lake was subsequently evacuated on May 6th.

An image from the wildfire that threatened High Level in 2019. Fr. Gerald Mendoza also volunteered as a firefighter during this wildfire.

The northern evacuations have been so immense that space was greatly limited. Along the area known as Bushe River, between High Level and Eleske, there are many evacuees who have been camped for over a month. Anxieties are particularly high for the persons of Fox Lake, who not only remain uncertain about when they can go home, but are uncertain if they even have homes to go back to.

“There have been lots of frustrations. The north feels abandoned,” said Fr. Gerald. “Some are forced to camp in tents, and whether it’s a cold day or very warm day, they have little choice in how they experience the elements. It’s very difficult; you feel sorry for them.”

Fr. Henry Kiggundi, FMH is the parish priest at Our Lady of Good Counsel in High Level, a town that has been swarmed with evacuees from both Chateh, Rainbow Lake and Fox Lake. The parish has been involved in various relief efforts, such as collecting pillows, blankets, diapers and socks for children, and other items for evacuees – largely through the efforts and organization of the Our Lady of Good Counsel CWL.

On Mother’s Day, some volunteers with the parish gathered together roses to give to evacuated mothers. Fr. Henry has also made time to visit with evacuated seniors to give them communion.

East Prairie parishioner John Supernault was evacuated from his home community for 19 days, spending much of that time at St. Paul’s Church in High Prairie.

While the north continues to battle these wildfires with no certain end in sight, some affected communities of the archdiocese are beginning to return to some degree of normalcy.

John Supernault was able to return to his home in East Prairie on late May, after being evacuated due to wildfires for 19 days. There were 32 properties destroyed in the fire that blazed through East Prairie, including 14 homes. The Good Shepherd Catholic Church in East Prairie was spared, though Supernault says the fire went through areas all around it.

“The fire is pretty unpredictable. It retreats and then it comes back. It follows wherever the wind blows it,” he said.

Over those 19 days of evacuation, John’s faith has been a constant source of strength. He has spent much of his time under evacuation order at St. Paul’s Church in High Prairie, particularly at their weekly adoration service, praying for an end to the fires and for protection of people’s homes.

“I’m a church-going man and I’ve been going to church all the time in High Prairie,” John said. “I’ve asked some of my relatives there to come with me for prayer but they were not interested. But I for one don’t know how people survive without the Lord. For me, prayer is non-stop. I’m not giving it up for anything.”

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the June 2023 edition of Northern Light