Tragedy among the trees

Pines Bible Camp deepens its roots after windstorm kills camper

GRAND FORKS, B.C.

A BCMB summer camp is using tragedy to deepen faith.

On Friday, July 20, Pines Bible Camp, located 10 km north of Grand Forks, B.C., was devastated by a freak windstorm. Surrounding trees snapped like matchsticks, crushing buildings and killing camper Richard Fehr of Christina Lake, B.C.

“Following the storm,” says executive director Gene Krahn, “this theme was impressed upon me: ‘That all may know his glory.’” Staff and leaders are trusting that some good will come from the disaster.

“This camp is God’s camp,” says Krahn. “If the Lord chooses to blow down all the trees, I’ll choose to be OK with that. I serve at the pleasure of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

Director of B.C. Camp Ministries Merv Boschman sees an opportunity amidthe grief. “We’re praying that the choices made during this time of pain will be wise choices – to trust the Lord and hope in him. We’re praying that faith will increase.”

Devastation

Eleven-year-old Fehr was described as a “wonderful little boy,” bright, happy, and cheerful. He had committed his life to Jesus that week at camp, and was with his counsellor in their cabin when a large tree fell on the building. Fehr died as a result of his serious injuries.

All other 150 people on site – including 87 campers, and more than 60 staff and volunteers – were getting ready for a banquet to celebrate the end of the camping week, and made it to safety.

“Our staff was brilliant – calm and cool,” says Krahn. “They knew how to navigate their kids through the dangers. They followed our fire drill procedures. I can’t help but sing their praises.”

During the storm, which lasted only 10–15 minutes, more than 1,500 trees came down on the camp property. The site – once a rustic, wooded retreat – now looks like a clear-cut. Three cabins and the general store were destroyed. Several other buildings sustained damage, including the steel-framed gym.

“The tragedy is real,” says Boschman, “but it could have been multiplied many times, with scores of people injured. The heroism [shown by Pines staff] was quite remarkable.”

Restoration

Camp leaders were in no panic to start clean-up, although they received many offers of help. Leaders ensured professional counsellors were on hand to help children, staff, and families deal with the catastrophe. “We took time [to grieve],” said Krahn, “especially during the first week.”

The Fehr family held a service for Richard on July 28, and set up a memorial fund in their son’s name to sponsor youth with special needs or financial barriers to attend summer camp or other recreational activities.

At the beginning of August, the Pines restoration project began. Heavy equipment removed trees and logs, and then a large group of volunteers cleared away brush and debris. Mennonite Disaster Service helped during the clean-up phase by organizing volunteers and meals. More than $14,000 was collected during a July fundraising event to help with expenses not covered by insurance, and Camps B.C. will continue to receive donations for Pines on their website.

The support received from churches and individuals “has been fantastic!” says Krahn. “We’re so grateful that this is the family we’re part of. The generosity has been overwhelming.”

Pines on the Road

Camp staff – who continued to work for the duration of the summer – poured their energy into a program called Pines on the Road.

“You can’t come to camp,” they announced, “so camp will come to you!” Pines staff ran local day camps across the West Kootenays, including Trail, Nelson, Midway, Grand Forks, and Kelowna. They also made follow-up phone calls to campers and families affected by the tragedy.

New Vision

“Over the fall, we anticipate all repairs [to buildings and cabins] will be done,” says Krahn. “We’ll be ready for next season.” Volunteers will construct three new cabins, and put the finishing touches on the camp’s $1.5-million dining facility.

And what of the surrounding trees that once stood so proud and mighty? “Right now, we’re looking at partial reforestation,” says Krahn. “Of course, we’ll plant pine trees again – we don’t want to become Maple Bible Camp.”

“Every day is hard,” he says. “This is our new normal. We’re working through the grief. There was a loss of life, as well as a loss of what Pines used to be. But we’re trusting. We’re looking to God for a new vision.”

—Laura Kalmar

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