Servant’s Heart from the Desk of a Deacon
It’s a global story with a terrible impact right here in the Diocese of Kootenay: Extreme weather events triggered by human-induced climate change. But it was not simply abstract science for the guests, staff and neighbours of the Sorrento Centre, the Anglican retreat and conference centre in the South Shuswap this August.
Two large wildfires on either side of Adams Lake merged into an out-of-control “wildfire of note” that roared through the North Shuswap.
On Friday, August 18, we welcomed the first evacuee family of this fire season but before they could even settle in, there was an emergency alert and we had to evacuate our entire campus (along with much of Sorrento).
The Bush Creek East wildfire had sped almost 20k in less than 12 hours into the South Shuswap and was burning on the outskirts of Sorrento. Our staff safely evacuated almost 200 guests on the final day of a week-long music event. Then our staff left – some to shelter in their homes outside the evacuation zone, others to surrounding communities including Blind Bay, Salmon Arm, Enderby, Vernon and Chilliwack.
Eight days later, the evacuation order was downgraded to an alert – which means we still must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice – and we were able to return to our campus and farm. The Sorrento Centre story is ongoing – in early September, the Bush Creek East wildfire remained volatile, dynamic and very smoky. The perimeter is a short distance from our main campus and even closer to our farm.
Our Centre, our staff, and our neighbours are all safe for now. The early reports of the devastation in the North Shuswap estimate there are more than 200 homes and other structures destroyed or damaged. In early September, BC Wildfire firefighters, on the ground and in the air, local firefighters, and volunteers were battling the blaze.
The Sorrento Centre will remain closed for guests until it is safe to re-open. We don’t know when that might be. We are assessing the impact of the wildfire.
Our story in Sorrento is different from our neighbours in the North Shuswap, from our friends at Camp OAC and others in the Kelowna area, but we all faced a terrible wildfire crisis. For the Sorrento Centre, we expect the immediate crisis to extend well into September. We hope to be able to start looking ahead by Thanksgiving.
As an ordained Deacon in the Diocese of Kootenay, the practical side of my vocation moved into high gear as the flames and smoke rose.
Our priorities in the early days of the wildfire crisis were clear:
- Ensure our guests, staff and neighbours remained safe.
- Provide practical support and comfort as we are able.
- Offer clear and direct information, relying on official sources.
- Work to ensure financial stability for our Centre in the face of losses from cancelled events that were hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last two weeks of August.
- Work with our neighbours, our local government and others to create collaborative opportunities to plan for recovery, when it is possible to do so.
As Christians, we are called in our baptismal vows to love God and love our neighbours. At the Sorrento Centre, we seek to be a “gathering place for all” and a “holy place of transformation for learning, healing and belonging.” In the coming days, there will need to be a lot of healing, as well as learning and belonging.
Love for our neighbours in a time of wildfire crisis takes on particular features, starting with basic safety and security. There is the practical matter of food and accommodation in the short term. In our area, the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District emergency operations offered good support. In the past, we have welcomed wildfire and flooding evacuees and we are ready to do so again as soon as it is safe to do so.
In the face of the fear and uncertainty of major crises, simple acts of kindness and comfort become very powerful and life-affirming. Our Sorrento Centre farmer Angelo, working with a few others, got back into our fields the day after the evacuation order was lifted, and started a major harvest. Much of the food went to the food bank for people who are hungry. Some that was spoiled went to neighbours with animals for feed. Our hard-working staff team also received fresh produce from our farm.
The Sorrento Centre is a community hub in the South Shuswap for the Community Response Network, which includes community organizations, first responders, police and others. We convened an on-line meeting to allow agencies to share needs and identify ways to collaborate for our community.
In the early days of September, we don’t know when we will re-open, and we don’t even know when we might know… but we do know that our shared commitment to love our neighbours doesn’t take a pause during a crisis.
In spite of the threat of wildfire near our main campus and farm, we remain grateful. Grateful for BC Wildfire, firefighters, first responders and volunteers. Grateful for our staff team who have rallied at a critical time. Grateful for the many acts of kindness given and received. Grateful for the messages of support and the prayers from our friends near and far – bringing real comfort in a time of trauma.
Look for updates on the website of the Sorrento Centre: https://www.sorrentocentre.ca