Saturday, 7 May 2016


"There is a massive wildfire in northern Alberta and it is heading directly for Slave Lake!" 

That was the voice of Peter Mansbridge on "The National" 15 years ago. 

As the Chisholm fire approached our town, our mayor's reassuring voice was heard on local radio every 15 minutes, informing us how far away the fire was and how fast it was travelling. Then it was "Be on standby..." and then "Be prepared to evacuate immediately..." Treasures gathered, we stood with our neighbours on doorsteps and driveways, watching the sky as ash and burned pine needles rained down on us. 

Then winds changed, the welcome smell of rain...and we were safe.

The welcome smell of rain from my driveway, May 2001
Five years ago today, another massive wildfire headed directly for Slave Lake. This time, no reassuring words from the Mayor. No regular updates. Just an occasional "Slave Lake is NOT on evacuation notice" on local radio and no mention whatsoever on any news network. 

Still we gathered on doorsteps and driveways watching the sky. 

The terrifying sky, from my driveway, May 15 2011
The terrifying sky. 

Then the power went out and the radio fell silent. And still no emergency alerts. And then we were searching for our families and getting into our vehicles, driving through smoke and wind-born cinders and fire, roads blocked in all directions, until highways re-opened and we joined the long lines of traffic to welcoming communities wherever we found them.

Two weeks later we were home.

Those of us who had houses to go to were greeted with a pail of cleaning supplies and a packet of instructions, including signs to put in windows to alert utilities companies when services had been restored.  Seeing the signs "DONE. DONE. DONE. DONE." meant your house was back to normal and you could go on with your life. We looked for those signs. 

We wanted it to be done. All of it. We wanted everything back the way it was. 

These are old stories for Slave Lake. 

Stories we told.

Stories we shared. 

Stories that are now part of our history as individuals and as a community. Stories we thought we were done with.  Until images of the Fort McMurray fire flooded our media channels, our hearts, our minds and our guts. A friend emailed me. "I can't stop looking at the pictures. I'm mesmerized. And I smell smoke." Another said, "I felt physically sick. Like a punch to the stomach." My normally calm daughter who lived through our fire and now lives elsewhere told me she started shaking and she couldn't stop.Suddenly it all came flooding back. We relived it all over again.The escape. The relief of learning no one was lost. The not knowing. The brutal return. The devastation. The loss.

You think you're done. 
You think it's all back to normal.
But you're not done.
The fire and all that came after is part of you now. Part of us.
You'll never be done. 
Would you want to be?

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