He's a pastor and a firefighter and Fort McMurray made him question God

Church is back in session in Fort McMurray this Sunday, as evacuees who fled the fire return home. One pastor who fought on the wildfire's front lines says it tested his faith in God — and made him stronger.

Firefighter says his crews are still mourning the homes they lost to the 'beast' wildfire

Lucas Welsh, a Fort McMurray firefighter and Fort City Church pastor says the fire challenged his faith in God. (Marion Warnica/CBC)

Fort McMurray's "welcome bridge" has become a symbol of hope for a city that badly needs it. Firefighters in uniform wave to each returnee as flags flutter patriotically above them. But behind those smiles, there is also pain. And Lucas Welsh knows all about it.

"All of us, all of the firefighters, nobody's happy," he said on a shift break, while his white firefighter pickup sits outside, covered in mud. 

"Nobody feels like we knocked it out of the park," he said of the wildfire that forced some 90,000 people from their homes for nearly a month. "It's easy to talk about how the city was saved, and 90 per cent of the city is still standing. But that 10 per cent was our job too. And that's a tough burden to bear."

That burden has been part of a minute-by-minute struggle for a man who is also a pastor. Because during the fire, Welsh says, he couldn't feel God.

And he wondered how a loving God could let this happen.

'I didn't feel God'

On the day the evacuation of his hometown began, Welsh flew into town with his crew, sirens blaring.

He works as an industrial firefighter for Suncor, a crew that typically pitches itself in fierce competition with city firefighters. But facing the wildfire their fire chief dubbed "the beast," they were all one team.

As firefighters switch from battling the Fort McMurray wildfire to rebuilding the city, some are struggling with guilt, fire chief Darby Allen said. (Supplied/Lucas Welsh)

"On a normal day, saving five houses is something you could be happy about. And you'd take a moment and go 'Yes, we did that,'" he said.

But that's not how it was in the "chaotic" first 48 hours of the wildfire. "You'd look up and there's 10 houses on fire three blocks away. It didn't feel like there were any wins."

The first fire Welsh fought that day was at the road that curved around his own neighbourhood. 

Flames threatened to jump Thickwood Boulevard and into Dickensfield, where Welsh lives with his wife and two boys. It is the neighbourhood where he grew up. Where he and his little brother would race their bikes after school to the pond in the nearby forest trails, goof around and chase beavers until it got too dark.

Now he had to stop it from burning, while a lineup of cars — including one carrying his own family — inched in traffic, trying to get away.

It did not feel real. It felt godless.

"In the moment, I didn't see God, I didn't feel God," he said. "My faith was in me. But looking back, it is also what carried me."

When your best doesn't feel good enough

"Seeing people stuck on a road and thinking, 'If you can't stop that fire, they're going to have to get out of their car and run.' It was gut wrenching."

He worked 20 hours straight the first day. Then he slept on a concrete floor.

Ask any firefighter and his story will be similar. They did their best. And their best didn't feel good enough.

"At one point, a crew told us they were losing a house every five minutes. They weren't able to stop it," Welsh said. "And they were undermanned because the whole city was on fire."

The beast was huge. Their number was small. Disheartening moments were plenty. There wasn't time to think about much else. 

"In the chaos of the week, you take care of your body as best as you can. And you kind of end up ignoring your mental and spiritual health," he said. 

Firefighter church

The most anyone could do was a quick exchange with friends they glimpsed on the fire line.   

For Welsh, the toughest of these exchanges was with his little brother Jake, who is also a Fort McMurray firefighter.

A quick hug, and instead of goodbye: "Be safe." They didn't talk about it, but to Welsh it really meant "I'm glad you're alive, stay that way."

By the end of the first week, they needed more. A friend asked him to organize a service for firefighters. 

Close to 10 people came. Some were just on a quick work break and parked their fire trucks outside.

Welsh did not get to go. His company put him on a plane to see his family.

But he hopes he'll have another chance this Sunday, at his congregation's first public service in the Fort City Church since the evacuation.

And he now has an answer to his own question about God — and the wildfire.

"It's my understanding that the good comes with the bad. And it's this idea that we are given chances to rise, chances to meet the occasion in terrible moments," Welsh explained.

"It's those chances that define us. And if God never gave us an opportunity to rise to those moments, then we'd never know."


Hugs for heroes

Firefighters in bunker gear gathered at the Fort City Church in Fort McMurray on the Monday following the evacuation. 

(Jacob Welsh)

Plunging spirits

Lucas Welsh: "Morale was pretty low. None of us had seen our families. And we're stuck in this city where people say we saved the city, but we lost a lot of stuff. And that weighs heavy."

(Lucas Welsh)

God squad

Welsh's church is also the headquarters for Christian volunteers who have come from the U.S. to help after the wildfire. So far, 50 have set up cots in the church auditorium. 

(Marion Warnica/CBC)

It takes a village

Fort City Church lead pastor Doug Doyle, left, Stephen Joudry of Samaritan's Purse, centre, and Patricia  Kanwischer  with the Billy Graham rapid-response team. 

(Marion Warnica/CBC)

Boots and Bibles

Approximately 50 chaplains have been installed here this week to help give emotional support. They're also helping heft fridges. 

(Marion Warnica/CBC)

Long road

Stephen Joudry: "We are here to assist the homeowners. Our primary role is to walk alongside the residents to be part of their journey on the road to recovery — whatever that may look like."

(Marion Warnica/CBC)

Starting over

Patricia Kanwischer, chaplain, on the residents who lost homes: "There's such grief in that. They've lost their history. They've lost everything that they've held dear. So we just want to provide the comfort and the hope that you can begin again. And to make a new story and a new chapter in your life."

(Marion Warnica/CBC)

'Faith rising' 

Pastor Doug Doyle, on the experience of evacuating his home and his church community: "It was an incredible experience of people at their very best. Faith rising in the middle of the mess."

(Marion Warnica/CBC)

Ready to rebuild

Burned trees stand side-by-side with other trees full leaves in Fort McMurray's Prospect Drive neighbourhood. 

(Marion Warnica/CBC)