Ten years ago this week

Ten years ago this week, two separate fires swept into Slave Lake and the south shore communities of Widewater and Canyon Creek. When the smoke cleared, something like 400 homes were charred ruins, along with a church, a library, the town offices and several businesses.

For many of those who were there, it was an experience best left in the past. Apart from the individual stories of loss and subsequent struggle to get back to something like ‘normal,’ there was that weird and unsettling feeling of everything falling apart. When all your assumptions about how things were going to turn out okay disappeared in a puff of smoke. Or rather in a 100-kilometre wind full of burning pieces of black spruce, ripped off of the trees by the howling gale and flung half a kilometre ahead of the flames onto roofs, into eaves, against fences and lighting new fires all over the place. In the midst of that the power failed and the water pressure with it.

Does anybody want to go back and re-live that experience? Not likely.

But it’s somehow worth acknowledging the incident, 10 years later. Perhaps we should focus on the positives. We all learned a tremendous amount. Some of those lessons were hard. Some were inspiring.

For one thing, there is a heightened appreciation for what can happen when the conditions are right for it to happen. And how puny our efforts to stop it turn out to be. On the other hand, when nature decides to burn, the less we provide it with, the safer we will be. That’s what’s behind the whole ‘FireSmart’ concept. Like all safety messages flowing out of governments, it gets tedious after a while. But it is no less valid. The most useful legacy of the 2011 wildfires is what we do to prevent it from happening again. So…if a dozen burning embers fall into your eavestrough next week, what will they find? If they fall into a flowerbed next to your house, will they find a nice dry bed of bark? Will they land in a woodpile next to your shed? All of these things happened on May 14 and 15, 2011, and because the conditions were perfect for ignition, up they went.

So…. we won’t spend a lot of time reminiscing about what happened. A lot of people put in a lot of heroic effort to limit the spread and then to rebuild what was lost. All credit to them.

Going forward, let’s remember what can happen when the conditions are right for it. And do what we can to limit the damage.

Let’s also take the opportunity to remember all the help we got, from the provincial government on down to municipal fire services that came roaring north with lights flashing to help save our communities. In some ways, although it was a huge disaster, it was our (Alberta’s) finest hour.

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