Evacuation

By Aaron A. Lehman | Special to Canadian Mennonite

Call for volunteers

“Where have you been today?” the customs officer at the Edmonton International Airport asked.



My wife Winifred named the places: “Meridian, Miss.; Atlanta, Ga.; Minneapolis, Minn., and here.”



“What have you heard about Slave Lake?”



“We haven’t heard anything since we left home eight days ago.”



“Slave Lake is on fire.”



“You mean a forest fire?”



“Yes, and the town.”



“Oh no!”



“I’m sorry. Go ahead.”



At 1 a.m. on May 17, our emotions tumbled forth. We were tired from the long trip, waiting in terminals, eating airport food and dealing with a delayed flight. Now, an hour behind schedule, we were standing bewildered waiting at the baggage claim.



Our trip to Mississippi had been planned for some time, the latest in several Voluntary Service reunions for us. We had a great time of sharing and fellowship, listening to the night sounds of frogs, cicadas and other animals.



“Slave Lake may have ice and snow during a long winter, but we don’t have to worry about tornadoes and floods,” I recall saying, oblivious to what was happening in Slave Lake at that very moment. I had forgotten—or ignored—the fact that we live in the middle of the Boreal Forest, prone to forest fires in May.



At this time in Slave Lake, some seven thousand people and numerous pets were being evacuated. Some barely escaped with their lives as acrid smoke darkened the sky and surging flames torched their homes and businesses.



How could this have happened? As is often the case in northern Alberta in May, there are days with southeast winds that bring hot, dry air. Everyone enjoys these spring days.



All was fine until May 14, when a spark ignited dry grass east of town. Such fires are common in our area. The forest service was prepared to take immediate action. Firefighters were called in. Air tankers and helicopters with buckets scooped up water from the lake and dropped it and flame retardant on the fire.



But wind was the culprit. Fanned by strong winds, the fires got out of control. By that evening, a combination of abnormal factors combined to bring a forest fire “tsunami,” as one firefighter described it, over the town. Winds of 100 kilometres per hour made it too dangerous to use air tankers or helicopters. Fire-fighters bravely battled the onslaught, but lost. Most of the institutions, including schools and the hospital, were saved. The new library, town office and some 300 homes were gone by the next day, however.



At the last minute, residents hopped into their vehicles and joined the procession out of town. Some saw their houses flash into flames as they drove away. They gathered again in evacuation centres in Smith, Westlock, Athabasca and Edmonton, to hug and share stories and get aid provided by generous Alberta donors. We met our family members in Edmonton and learned that our places were spared, but homes of our neighbours and friends were lost. Courageous actions by firefighters ensured no one died.



Finally, the call has come to go home. Everyone will need to help rebuild the community. Some people will need more help than others, but there is a strong community spirit and we will get it done.

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