Our Town Was Burned Down

Pipestone Flyer

On Saturday, May 14th, 2011 the weather was very hot and very dry in Slave Lake. There was no sign of clouds or rain and strong winds swirled through the region.  In the midst of these conditions a fire was started about 15 kilometres (9 mi) east of Slave Lake around 1:30 pm. 

    By 2:00 pm the province had declared the fire situation around Slave Lake to be a level three emergency. By 4:30 pm the fire had quickly spread to cover about 1,200 acres.  The residents from these rural regions were evacuated to Slave Lake where it was deemed to be safe even though Slave Lake, too, had been declared a local state of emergency. Officials remained hopeful that the fire would not spread into the town but the 100 kilometre per hour (60 mph) winds changed direction and headed directly towards Slave Lake and soon pushed the blaze past fire breaks towards the town. All the firefighters were recalled into town to take a "last stand" by defending Slave Lake on 12 Street S. E. where they soaked down the houses and the forest. But, in 30 – 45 minutes it all happened. Firefighters working under a black cloud of smoke and gasping for a breath of air brought in by gusts of wind were quickly overwhelmed by the heat and burning embers thrown forward by the blaze.

    By 9:30 pm, the province declared a level four emergency and a half an hour later, a mandatory evacuation was ordered for the 7,000 residents of Slave Lake.  A steady stream of people headed east and south to neighbouring communities to stay in improvised shelters or to stay with friends and relatives.

    By the morning of May 17th only essential staff and firefighters remained in the community.   95% of the town's residents had been evacuated and searches were conducted in the event any residents may have stayed behind. 

Slave Lake Fire Chief Jamie Coutts shares the disaster

    “Our town was burned down.  480 homes, approximately 40 kilometres, 6 three story apartments, 730 families left homeless,  businesses gone,  the town hall, library, radio station and a mall and churches , all gone.  Over the five days most of our firefighters went with as little as 6 hours sleep but they saved the hospital, RCMP station and schools and homes. With the hot dry weather and the high winds it took 30 minutes to burn down a house, a three story apartment building disintegrated into 6 inches of ash.”      These were some of the words of a 3 hour emotional presentation by Jamie Coutts, Fire Chief for Slave Lake as he once again re-lived what he had witnessed and experienced during the 5 day battle to put out the fires that raged around and through Slave Lake. In all, the fire destroyed roughly one-third of Slave Lake.

    Jamie was sharing his experience with The City of Wetaskiwin Protective Services department at their EM (Emergency Management) Agency meeting on Thursday January 24, 2013. “My presentation and everything I say comes from a firefighter’s perspective. Not from a political perspective. I want to share with you the things we didn’t do and the things we didn’t do right. I want to share with you what we learned and how we are moving forward.” 

    Jamie stressed how quickly disasters occur and the value and importance of having an up to date Emergency Response Plan. He did caution that although well designed plans are critical, in the midst of a disaster of this magnitude, common sense plays a huge role. His example was a typical response plan would have schools evacuated in school busses and parents would evacuate in their vehicles. But he stresses that in the real world, there is no way parents will leave without their children. “When you are on an island (Slave Lake surrounded by fire) with no place to go and now the island is burning down with no radio, water running down, no power, and no radio station. It’s a hard place to get as Fire Chief; your town is burning down.” 

    The Slave Lake disaster and firefighting battle has changed Jamie

     Jamie acknowledges his views about life are different since that experience.  “Yes, I think it does that. (changes how people view the world following a disaster) When the government (assistance) first came back, Ken Grant with the army – maybe better known as General Grant – said ‘you are different now. You are part of an elite group of people. You know what it is like to have been in combat. You know what it is like to have had other peoples’ lives in your hands.’  

We didn’t think of it like that at that time but it really was different going outside (into the public) and it was a different world than we live in and it is still like that.  We all could say let’s get some t-shirts made saying, ‘You weren’t there, you don’t know’.  I know everyone wishes they could have stayed and helped but you know we couldn’t have that, right.  And it does,,, it does change you . We know how bad it can get and you can make it through.  But you have to pull together, and have team work. That’s what I’m kinda trying to do. Is make people understand that there is your life every day and (you think) nothing is ever going to happen but it does. It happens all over the place. I am trying to make people understand that you live your life day to day and think nothing is going to happen. Moving forward wasn’t easy as there was a lot of emotion and not a lot of volunteerism because everyone was busy doing their own stuff.” The crime rate in Slave Lake since the fire increased by 400%. The clean-up filled a 10 year cell in the landfill site.

    Immediately following the fire, the Government of Alberta promised $50 million in aid to the town. There were expenses such as immediate assistance for residents for cleanup and to replace items such fridges and deep freezes that were full of spoiled food. There were expenses incurred by the evacuees, repairs to residences and the addition of temporary residences. The Canadian Red Cross and disaster relief agencies were inundated with material donations.

    Businesses across the province also stepped forward to help. Service providers parachuted in extra employees to quickly reinstate power, water supply, telephone, police and fire services. Food companies sent out extra shipments of food and insurance companies quickly set up operations near evacuation centres to assist residents with questions and concerns. Fundraisers were held across the province to support the residents of Slave Lake. 

    “It was panic and chaos. We were limited to a firefighting ground crew as aerial staff were grounded due to the high winds. 45 minutes to evacuate 7000 people. The Emergency Operations Centre is on fire and burns to the ground so you move to the Hospital to spray it down. You treat houses of friends and neighboors like a forest and knock it down to save other houses. There was a reported 100 pound keg of black powder. There were propane tanks, sixteen 5 gallon jerry cans of gas in a shed. You tend to lose touch with reality and become indifferent and in shock.

    I’m not a touchy, feely guy but I have never cried or hugged more. When people would ask me what’s wrong all I could say is ‘I don’t know’. It was a different world. And remember NO ONE DIED.” 

    Jamie left Wetaskiwin Emergency services with the challenge. “Why do we keep having these things and not make the changes necessary to make us more prepared.”