At first, Kevin Parsons was among the lucky ones – his family’s apartment was still standing after a wildfire roared through Slave Lake, Alta., in May, leaving hundreds homeless.
The wind that blew the fire into town, however, tore up his building’s roof. When Slave Lake was hit again the next month with heavy rain, water flooded their unit.
Their case is indicative of the year Slave Lake has had – one setback after another. Mr. Parsons, his pregnant wife and two children spent two months camping in a tent.
“This is what we call home right now,” Mr. Parsons, 34, shrugs as he sits next to his campfire, eating Kraft Dinner one August afternoon. “We go day by day. Some days are better than others.”
Slave Lake still faces a long road on its rebuild. Officials had initially hoped to have temporary housing in place this week, allowing families displaced by fire and flood to settle while kids, such as Mr. Parsons’s five-year-old son Damon, returned to school. Without it, they feared families would leave the community of 7,000 altogether, as 22 families already have.
The housing isn’t ready. Only a handful of families have moved in to temporary units, and hundreds remain without homes.
“We just want people to know Slave Lake is not fine,” Mr. Parsons said.
Mr. Parsons and his family, however, were lent an RV in mid-August, one of many examples cited by locals of the community co-operation since the disaster.
Over the next month, 242 temporary housing units will be brought online in Slave Lake, provided by the province. “We probably lost a month of construction weather [with flooding] and we’re feeling it now,” Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau said. Meanwhile, of 372 homes destroyed, 25 have so far filed for permits to rebuild (and the city, to the dismay of some, is still collecting fees for permits).
Insurance companies say the fires caused $700-million in claims, second only to Eastern Canada’s 1998 ice storm. Alberta has, while in deficit, contributed $289-million in unbudgeted aid. The human toll was limited to the death of one pilot whose machine crashed while fighting the fires.
“I really console myself with the fact that virtually everybody got out safe,” Mr. Goudreau said.
The overall toll, if anything, underscores the importance of a question: Will a Slave Lake disaster happen again? While officials call it a perfect storm, fire experts say it’s folly to call Slave Lake a one-off.
With expanding northern populations, climate change that’s drying the forest and decades of a fire strategy that doused every fire, leaving ample fuel, few fire experts expect anything other than a continued spike in the frequency and scale of forest fires.
Eventually, communities stand in a fire’s path – Slave Lake; in Kelowna, B.C., in 2003; and in Chisholm, Alta., in 2001 – triggering calls for Alberta to be better prepared.
“If we don’t learn from this, something’s seriously wrong. It’s going to happen again, and it’s going to happen again, and it’s going to happen again,” said Glenn McGillivray, managing director of Canada’s Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a not-for-profit group founded by the insurance industry and affiliated with the University of Western Ontario. “We can do a lot better.”
Canada developed its own Wildland Fire Strategy in 2005, but the federal government hasn’t implemented it since.
In Slave Lake, two reviews have been struck up: a short one about the fire, which one source said started when a tree was blown over onto a power line (the government wouldn’t comment), and a longer one about the province’s handling of the disaster and why it didn’t recommend an evacuation until the fire was already in town. Alberta also undertook a minor overhaul of its emergency alert system.
The reviews are expected to include recommendations to cut back flammable black spruce trees at least two kilometres from every city; boost FireSmart programs to help communities and individual homeowners fireproof their homes as much as possible; and allow more controlled burns.
These may be a tough sell. Spruce trees are a main feature of the forest that makes up much of the beauty of northern towns.
“I don’t think I could live here without trees. It’s a quality of life thing,” Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said. Prescribed burns, meanwhile, produce excessive smoke and tend to be unpopular, Mr. McGillivray said.
In the meantime, displaced residents are finding their own solutions. Georgie Gauthier, 38, lost her home to the fire. She, her husband and their three children spent the summer in an RV at the campground.
“For days, it doesn’t resonate. You just kind of feel like you’re camping, like we’re on a holiday. It’s the forever-long camping trip now,” Ms. Gauthier explains.
Their insurance coverage included rent money they used as a down payment on a condo. Such are the perks of having good coverage. That, she says, is the personal lesson of Slave Lake – be prepared, and don’t think it’s a one-off.
“We have spread the word like crazy to our family and friends and said: get your stuff in order,” Ms. Gauthier said. “Don’t ever think it can’t happen to you.”