Calgary Herald

Rebuilt town of Slave Lake braces for wildfire season


Nothing like a whiff of wildfire smoke to send the town of Slave Lake's collective blood pressure up.

“Ever since the wildfire that took a portion of our community down, some people's tensions get a little high,” said Deputy Mayor Shawn Gramlich as wildfire icons popped up around the Alberta Wildfire Status Dashboard on Monday.

A small fire Sunday briefly closed Highway 2 near Slave Lake so fire apparatus could be brought in, but was under control Monday.

Closer to Slave Lake, a three-hectare blaze near Canyon Creek on Lesser Slave Lake, about 20 km west of the town of Slave Lake, was “being held.”

On May 15, 2011, a full evacuation was ordered as wildfire destroyed 40 per cent of the town, its houses and businesses — and Gramlich's own home, lock, stock and laundry barrel.

“No one wants to relive that again, and you can see when you smell some of the smoke in the air, depending on what type of personalit­y you are, it does trigger people where they get an uneasy feeling,” he said.

“It's a smell we grew up with, but now it relates to burning half of our town down. It's like, `Oh God, here we go — forest fire season.'”

Power outage here, a bit of smoke there — that was wildfire season in Slave Lake last year. Edmonton kids had snow days but 255 km northwest, Slave Lake kids stayed home on smoke days.

Gramlich recalls his hometown being in denial.

“Most people didn't take it serious and we were kind of instructed to keep listening to the radio,” he said Monday.

“We were used to having fires close to us.”

The radio station was among the first to go, broadcasti­ng a loop of old informatio­n as flames consumed it, Gramlich said.

“Cellphone signals were all blocked and we waited until the last second to leave our homes. That's what we were instructed to do.”

Seven months pregnant, his wife Lacy was ready to leave, right down to having family photos scanned. He told her she was “nuts.” “Turned out, I was the one who was nuts,” he said. “I grabbed my dirty clothes out of the laundry. That's what I got.”

They saw a neighbour's house ablaze.

“I picked up the dogs, the house filled with smoke and all the power went out.”

Across town, they encountere­d a friend's dad, walking with a case of beer.

“He's like, `It'll be fine!' I'm like, `No, I'm pretty sure my house has already burned,' and he's `Oh you're one of them now,'” Gramlich recalled.

In Slave Lake, they're “all kinds of ready, but hoping we're just over-prepared and nothing happens this year,” Gramlich said.

“It's very dry. I predict it's going to be mayhem, but I'm hoping that's completely wrong.”

There's frustratio­n because so many fires — including the one that razed part of Slave Lake — are human-caused.

“It's people starting them, it's their quads, it's leaving a campfire behind. It's cigarettes,” he said.

“It's too dry nowadays to do that. It's not 10 years ago, it's not 20 years ago, so we have to be a little more cautious around here, but it doesn't take much for fire to travel.”

The fire department issued a sort of To Go for Dummies guide that's something of a preparedne­ss bible.

An overnight bag ready to go is an ingrained habit.

The town has purchased 1,000 cots and has them ready to either send ahead of evacuation or to accommodat­e others fleeing fires elsewhere.

Last year, it was Slave Lake's turn to be the good neighbour.

“Last year when things were a little closer, there were communitie­s coming here. We opened up our community last year for months to a lot of the First Nations around us and High Level. Since the fire, we're very accommodat­ing when it's fire related — that's one thing we do well in Slave Lake, lend a helping hand when it comes fire season,” he said.

In case of evacuation, there'll be no repeat of last time's lingering.

“We're not going to wait till the bitter end because we'd rather leave like Edson did last year and have no homes burned but not have to panic, then have 6,000 people flee at the drop of a pin,” he said.

Meanwhile, on Monday Lac Ste. Anne was hoping to contain a fire near Township 544 and Range Road 15, said County Reeve Joe Blakeman, who was mindful of 10 km/h wind.

“They put out a 30-minute alert in case of evacuation — I think they'll probably lift it pretty soon — but with this wind, who knows? Hopefully, they get it out before it jumps anything,” Blakeman said.

There were 65 wildfires burning across the province Monday, three of them out of control.

 ?? IAN KUCERAK ?? Slave Lake understand­s the worry over wildfires after almost half the town was destroyed in a blaze in May, 2011.
IAN KUCERAK Slave Lake understand­s the worry over wildfires after almost half the town was destroyed in a blaze in May, 2011.

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