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by Jim Burton

FORT MCMURRAY, AB (BP) – The “Beast,” a Canada 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. Although firefighters and favorable weather conditions have helped stem the growth, the fire continues to burn vast acres of forest. The oil-sand reserves are one of Canada’s major energy sources and provides jobs for most Fort McMurray families.

Massive wildfire continues to rip through Western Canada. (Photo courtesy

Massive wildfire continues to rip through Western Canada. (Photo courtesy

The wildfire halted oil production and forced evacuation of the entire city of 80,000 people. The Fort McMurray evacuees are pouring into major cities like Edmonton, which is five hours away, as they leave virtually all possessions behind after officials locked down the city. The Canadian National Baptist Convention is responding to the evacuee’s needs through the Canadian Global Response (CGR) organization by assembling care hampers (baskets) with basics items such as dishes, glasses, cutlery, toilet paper, dish soap, Power Bars, sponges and kitchen towels, according to 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 in an effort to make them as comfortable as possible, 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 their national convention has two churches in Fort McMurray, 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.”

“The devastation of this wildfire is impossible to explain in words,” said David Melber, vice president of Send Relief for the North American Mission Board (NAMB). Melber toured the area May 11-13. “The shear size is massive. 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 and the leadership of Sam Porter, Oklahoma Disaster Relief and the SBDR volunteers who are here and will come to help our neighbors. There will be much work and much healing needed. Pray for our friends in Fort McMurray.”


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

Wildfire consumes everything in its path with no end in sight. (Photo courtesy

Wildfire consumes everything in its path with no end in sight. (Photo courtesy

director, Sam Porter, Oklahoma General Baptist Convention Disaster Relief director, Abraham Shepherd, CGR director, and Melber visited Lac La Biche on Friday to visit a shelter there for 4,500 people. Loc La Biche is an Alberta hamlet about 140 miles northeast of Edmonton, and titles itself as the forestry capital of Canada.


Melber said the fire response has highlighted needs the CGR has for ministry, including a shower trailer and laundry units. Volunteers from Oklahoma and the Northwest Baptist Convention will need support, as well as ministry to those affected by the fire. The need will be great and will be long-term. 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 typically susceptible to summer wildfires caused by lightning strike. But Mike Flanagan, a wildfire professor at the University of Alberta, told the Canadian Press that humans likely caused the “Beast” as no lightning strikes occurred in the area.

Those wishing to donate to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) can contact the Baptist convention in their state or visit Use the drop down menu, Canada Wildfire Response. 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.


Jim Burton is a writer and photojournalist based in Atlanta.

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