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Forest fire destroys church member's home

BRITISH COLUMBIA — Fueled by dry landscape, a swift-moving forest fire swept through Kelowna, British Columbia, Aug. 22, causing the evacuation of an estimated 30,000 people — including most members of the Kelowna 2nd Ward, Vernon British Columbia Stake — and destroying 238 homes in western Canada.

One member home was destroyed in the fire, the area's worst in 50 years. No members were injured during the blaze or subsequent evacuation.

"It could have been way worse than it was," said Bishop Andrew L. Draper of the Kelowna 1st Ward. "We are still desperately in need of rain."

As of press time, the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, triggered by an Aug. 16 lightning strike, was 70 percent contained. All the evacuated members had returned home, turning their focus toward helping others.

More than 150 members fled their homes with as little as 20 minutes warning Aug. 22. "Some literally grabbed 72 hours kits," said President Kent G. Burnham of the Vernon stake.

The fire, he added, moved so quickly that many residents were evacuated more than once. "Some went to relatives' homes and were evacuated again. Some went to other members' houses and were evacuated again …

"The other ward [Kelowna 1st Ward] put their shoulder to the wheel and took the project on," said President Burnham. "They did a marvelous job of providing assistance and support to those who needed it. Certainly members' homes were opened. Surrounding stakes were all generous in offers of support and help, as the surrounding communities were. Nobody was without a place to stay."

The home of Bishop William R. Spittle of the Kelowna 2nd Ward was destroyed in the blaze, said Bishop Draper. The only thing left, he added, is the driveway going to the house.

"The devastation is incredible," he said. "It has awakened everybody in their own mind to their responsibility for being prepared. You never know how long you are going to have to leave your house."

Because an entire ward was evacuated, Bishop Draper said, the typical emergency calling tree, in which home teachers check on the members they visit, broke down. The local meetinghouse was open 24 hours a day during the evacuation, "so members could come to the Church if they had nowhere else to go."

Keeping the meetinghouse open also provided local leaders with the opportunity to inventory where members were located during the evacuation.

The Sunday after the evacuation, members of the Kelowna 1st Ward cooked dinner for evacuated members. The event brought Latter-day Saints together, giving them the opportunity to "talk about the shock of it all."

Bishop Draper said many members also volunteered in the community; he gave time at an evacuation center doing registration work. Latter-day Saints also made hundreds of sandwiches for firefighters who could not leave the front lines.

And members will help the Spittles and others who have lost homes, Bishop Draper said.

"There is a lot of gratitude that the fire stopped when it did. When you look at the way the fire was moving, if the wind had not changed when it did, more houses would have been lost."

E-mail: sarah@desnews.com