Out of the Ashes

    With devastating wildfires a year behind it, the Slave Lake region is making a miraculous recovery due to the resilience of its residents and the generosity of strangers

    By Christie Moncrief on April 30, 2012

    With devastating wildfires a year behind it, the Slave Lake region is making a miraculous recovery due to the resilience of its residents and the generosity of strangers 

    When asked what comes to mind in describing the past year, the town of Slave Lake’s young, soft-spoken mayor, Karina Pillay-Kinnee, ’94 BSc, pauses, absorbed in contemplative reflection before responding with three words: “courage, humanity and endurance.” 

    One year ago, the rural northern Alberta community suffered one of the most devastating natural disasters in Canadian history when unprecedented wildfires consumed almost a third of the town. Four-hundred-and-seventy-five homes, six apartment blocks and 10 businesses were levelled in a matter of hours, in addition to 56 lost throughout the heavily forested Municipal District (MD) of Lesser Slave Lake. With insurance claims totalling more than $700 million, it’s the costliest Canadian disaster since the ice storms that ravaged Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia in 1998. Equally disturbing is news from RCMP investigators who concluded that the fire was not the result of natural or accidental causes, but set deliberately. 

    Indeed, it has been a long, challenging year for the residents of Slave Lake and surrounding district, but remarkable progress has already been made in resurrecting the area from near devastation and uplifting the spirits of the region’s stalwart citizens. 

    An Extraordinary Day 

    May 14, 2011, began as the kind of idyllic spring day that winter-weary Canadians crave — bright blue skies, sunshine and a gentle breeze. Residents mowed their lawns and prepared their yards for planting season, children chased each other around playgrounds, people went about their usual Saturday morning business. 

    22,000 hectares of land were consumed by the wildfire[Photo by: Epic Photography]

    Wildfires in the densely forested northern region are as common as snow in winter, especially during a dry spell, so it came as no surprise when, later that afternoon, a fire was spotted in a wooded area 10 kilometres south of Slave Lake. But increasing winds throughout that evening and the following morning fanned and spread flames more quickly than anyone could have expected. Pillay-Kinnee received notice via text from a town councillor’s son that the fire had breeched the town. It read: “The neighbours’ house is on fire — what do I do?” 

    Recalling her drive into a smoke- and flame-enveloped region, she says, “The whole landscape had changed. The first thing I said was ‘this isn’t Slave Lake.’ It looked like a bomb had dropped in our community. It was surreal.” 

    Over the next 24 hours, winds howling at 100 kilometres per hour continued to fan the infernos that blazed through town in a random fashion, engulfing some vehicles and structures with a remarkably intense heat, while leaving others seemingly in its direct path unscathed. A mass exodus was halted when RCMP officials closed Highways 2 and 88 into and out of the area, leaving remaining residents with no immediate escape. 

    Officials scrambled to keep in communication with residents via text message, social media and door-to-door warnings, all while co-ordinating the evacuation of the hospital and care facilities. The local radio station, Lake FM, did its part to broadcast safety instructions to residents in peril until a town-wide power outage thwarted its efforts. 

    "It looked like a bomb had dropped in our community. It was surreal."

    The loss of power didn’t just kibosh communications; the more serious concern was its effect on the ability to douse fires. “Our water reservoir is on a hill, and it takes power to pump water up to the reservoir, in turn supplying water to the town,” explains town manager Brian Vance, ’81 BSc(Eng). “We lost electricity. Then I got news that we’d lost water pressure. There was silence amongst the group; we all knew that meant there was no water to fight the fires.” 

    Crews did their best to protect vital infrastructure with what little water they had in tank trucks and by plowing firebreaks around the schoolyards and hospital until backup generators were up and running. Without a ready supply of water, however, the wildfires ravaged homes, churches, businesses, the radio station and, eventually, the town’s administrative office and library. 

    Emergency co-ordinators, administrators and remaining residents gathered in open areas, as far from harm as possible, and remarkably, no one was seriously hurt or killed. When fires receded from Highway 2, emergency crews and volunteers from across Alberta converged on the area to join the firefight, while evacuees made their way out of town and into a hazy, unknown future. 

    Picking Up the Pieces 

    Evacuation centres received more than 10,000 displaced residentsMore than 10,000 wildfire evacuees sought refuge at reception centres in Smith, Wabasca, Athabasca, Westlock, St. Albert and Edmonton. [Photo by: Epic Photography]

    More than 10,000 evacuees from the Lesser Slave Lake region funnelled into reception centres in Smith, Wabasca, Athabasca, Westlock and as far afield as St. Albert and Edmonton. Donations of clothing, toiletries and housewares poured in from all over the province for displaced residents seeking refuge. The provincial government kicked in more than $12 million to cover evacuee out-of-pocket incidentals during what would end up being nearly a two-week displacement. Red Cross volunteers from across Canada donated more than 45,000 hours in response to the disaster, distributing more than $212,000 worth of food and nearly $225,000 of household goods to displaced residents. 

    “How people rallied for us speaks volumes about the type of people we are in Canada,” says a grateful Pillay-Kinnee, who never imagined her community would be the recipient of an outpouring of generosity more commonly bestowed on victims of international disasters. Even Slave Lake’s sister community, Kamishihoro, Japan, sent almost $2,500 in aid. “[They] reached out to us when their own country had been recently devastated, and their loss is more severe than ours. It’s incredible.” 

    When at last fires were conquered and the state of emergency lifted, returning to the town and region was a contrast of emotions for residents. “When you lose a third of your community, someone you know very closely has been impacted,” says Pillay-Kinnee. “Even if you didn’t lose your home, people feel some sense of guilt and they share in that feeling of loss.” 

    Karina Pillay-Kinnee"How people rallied for us speaks volumes about the type of people we are in Canada." - Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee [Photo by Richard Siemens]

    A number of events were staged in an effort to buoy spirits and rebuild community morale: a visit by the Stanley Cup; the Concert of Hope featuring musicians Dwight Yoakam, Susan Aglukark and Ashley MacIssac; and, most notably, a stopover by Will and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on their cross-Canada tour. “The hope they brought to this community at that time was extraordinary,” Pillay-Kinnee recalls of the newlywed royals, who toured the burn zone along with then-premier Ed Stelmach. “They broke protocol, went right up to those families [who lost their homes], shook their hands and chit-chatted — it was amazing.” 

    Country singer Paul Brandt staged two concerts to benefit Slave Lake’s recovery: a Small Town Heroes concert last October and a fundraising concert in Edmonton that raised more than $100,000, 25 percent of which was paid forward to a Haitian community outreach facility. Television show ET Canada brought singer-songwriter Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo fame to Slave Lake to play a private concert and hand out gifts to families during the holiday season. 

    “The display of humanity has been amazing,” says Pillay-Kinnee. “It’s inspiring.” 

    Resurrecting a Community 

    In the wake of the wildfire that left nearly 2,000 people homeless, the Alberta government stepped up to help with $289 million in disaster funding. Recognizing that the tragedy had affected not just residents of Slave Lake but the lives of everyone in the region, a tri-council was formed between the town of Slave Lake, the MD and the Sawridge First Nation to administer recovery efforts in conjunction with the government-directed Regional Recovery Co-ordination Group. Their first order of business: to shelter displaced families, earmarking $44 million for 300 interim mobile home units. Already 182 households have been placed in the units, with others staying in self-placed accommodation. 

    “The progress that’s been made so far is outstanding. We didn’t anticipate a rebuild this quickly,” says Pillay-Kinnee. Thanks to a co-operative consortium of insurers, the work of demolition and construction was able to begin months ahead of schedule, and today more than a third of homes destroyed are being reconstructed. Home shows, town halls on rebuilding processes and seminars on insurance claims stirred displaced residents to action. In fact, the town issued more than 155 building permits between August 2011 and March 2012 — a remarkable feat considering the annual average is around 15 to 20. 

    Today, the landscape looks much different than it did one year ago. Construction is everywhere, as multiple contractors work to rebuild neighbourhoods that were completely levelled by the fire. “I’ve built a home in the best of times and know how much work’s involved in that. But being forced to do that? Trying to imagine everything you had in your closets, your drawers — that’s overwhelming,” says Pillay-Kinnee. “People have been incredibly strong go-getters.” 

    Brian Vance"There was a lot of doom and gloom that people would move away. But people have their homes, their families, their jobs and they want to stay." - Brian Vance, manager, Town of Slave Lake [Photo by Richard Siemens]

    While residents have been busy rebuilding their homes, the town’s administration has had to cope with the loss of its government building and what that means to the function of the organization itself. “We lost all of our hard-copy records,” says Vance. “We lost about a month of computer files. That’s been a real challenge for our staff here as we try to reconcile things like water bills, utility bills, taxes.” Fortunately, neighbouring municipalities sent about 65 additional staff who donated their time to help the administration get back on its feet. 

    Slave Lake’s library, which was housed in the same government building, has also been challenged to recover. “They lost everything,” says Anne Moore, who arrived in October to take on the daunting task of managing and rebuilding the library from scratch. But again, an overwhelming generosity from individuals and organizations has the library already re-established in an interim location with a collection of about 30,000 items — nearly twice the size of the original. “I don’t think people often realize what a library is; it’s like the hub of the community,” Moore says. “It’s tied to so many community organizations, adult education, home schooling. I think people see the library as a symbol of Slave Lake. It really is somewhere where your soul can just relax, and that’s what people need right now.” 

    While bricks and mortar are a physical sign of the region’s recovery, Pillay-Kinnee acknowledges a great deal of healing must also occur. “It’s one thing to see all the new buildings going up, but the emotional status of our community still needs work and will take time. People are weary.” 

    Andrea McDonald, ’11 BA, who moved north from Edmonton to work as communications co-ordinator for the two-year regional recovery project, is working on getting the word out about multiple social programs available to residents. “There are monthly speakers brought in to present on various topics. In February we had a speaker from the international Salvation Army organization who’s been on the front lines of disasters,” says McDonald. “Relaying his experiences lets everyone [here] know that they’re not alone — others have gone through the same kind of thing.” Various family-oriented events keep Slave Lakers occupied and give them plenty of opportunities to connect with one another and share their experiences. 

    “My son, who’s in Grade 7, always asks me, ‘Are you thriving or surviving?’ And I think we’re thriving.”

    In addition, the Canadian Red Cross has set up shop in Slave Lake to assist with social recovery for the next two years to help residents of the region find a new normal. “We’ve provided thousands of dollars worth of school supplies to ensure that kids have the tools they need to learn,” Leila Daoud, ’07 BA, Red Cross spokesperson, says of some of the projects the organization is taking on in the area. “We’ve supported a variety of community initiatives like family fun nights, and we’re working with the Town of Slave Lake to mark the one-year anniversary [of the fires] and to celebrate the resiliency of their community.” 

    “Sometimes I hear ‘Oh, there’s nothing left in Slave Lake,’ but really, there’s a lot still here,” Pillay-Kinnee says of reports of population decline as a result of the fires and concerns about an overtaxed health services sector following the untimely (though unrelated) departure of five physicians. “I get encouraged when people want to stay here.” 

    And the community isn’t just rebuilding what was lost; the town is flourishing with new developments, apartment complexes and businesses. “My son, who’s in Grade 7, always asks me, ‘Are you thriving or surviving?’” says Vance, sweeping his hand to the window overlooking Slave Lake’s bustling main street. “And I think we’re thriving.” 

    Andrea McDonald"Forest fires are unpredictable. It's just a matter of what measures can be taken to lessen the impact." - Andrea McDonald, communications co-ordinator, Regional Recovery Co-ordination Project [Photo by Richard Siemens]

    Slave Lake and the surrounding region have several major projects on the horizon: the reopening of a multi-recreation centre, which underwent a $13-million facelift (and, luckily, escaped the wildfires unscathed), the construction of a new evacuation centre, and establishing Slave Lake as a model FireSmart community. “FireSmart runs on the basis of healthier forests, safer communities,” explains McDonald of the $20-million project, “so it’s a matter of assessing and addressing all the hazards and risks in the municipal district that would contribute to fires.” Residents are invited to attend FireSmart demonstrations where they can learn how to protect their properties from destruction. Representatives from the program are also working with builders, advising on fire-protective building materials and landscaping options, ensuring future fire preparedness. 

    Stew Walkinshaw, ’93 BSc(Ag), a forest technologist and project manager of the FireSmart initiative in Slave Lake, says helping the region establish an effective wildfire preparedness guide will also have a substantial impact on the region’s ability to strategize emergency response in the future. “When the smoke is coming over the hill,” Walkinshaw says, “the firefighters can open up the plan on the hood of the truck and say, ‘We’ve got houses here, we’ve got a power transmission facility here, so we need to protect them and this is how we’re going to do it.’” 

    While an RCMP arson investigation is ongoing, Pillay-Kinnee remains steadfast in her resolve to celebrate the positive progress that’s been made, uplifting the hopes of the community with encouragement to heal and move forward. “We’ve got to change our mindsets from feeling like victims to feeling like survivors,” says the mayor. “May 15 is going to be an important day for us. We have to make sure we pull together that day and celebrate what we’ve accomplished.” 

    Many challenges still lie ahead for the community and the region — most pressing being recruitment of human resources, especially health care professionals — but Pillay-Kinnee is looking forward. She notes on her blog that spring signifies “rebirth, renewal and hope,” adding that as the physical rebuilding and emotional healing continue, residents will “find strength and encouragement that Slave Lake will rebuild stronger and better than ever.”