The aftermath of the Slave Lake wildfire, which saw whole subdivisions crumble into ashes, was something they couldn’t ignore.
Now, exactly one year later, Red Deer residents Stan and Cathy Hunter reflect on their work in Slave Lake and on the fight to rebuild homes.
The Hunters have had a hand in rebuilding a subdivision in the southeast of Slave Lake — one of the hardest-hit neighbourhoods. More than 400 properties were destroyed or damaged in the blaze.
The owners of Stan Hunter Construction Ltd., a family-run business established in Red Deer in 1986, they have now worked for a year in the town. It all started with a phone call.
“We built a home for some people in Buck Lake and they happened to be related to a couple who lost their home in Slave Lake,” Cathy explained Monday.
“When they lost their home the dad said, ‘Why don’t you call Stan Hunter Construction, I know he goes out of town sometimes.’ ”
A week after the fire in May 2011, and overwhelmed about the loss of their home, Dawn and Dale Thomas contacted the Hunters.
“They came to our home and we discussed it,” Cathy said. “We were kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, that is four hours away from here.’ ”
Cathy said Stan decided that if he was going to help rebuild the Thomases home, he wanted to do more than one. But having not yet been to Slave Lake, the Hunters were not sold on the idea.
“Cathy and I took a drive up to get a grasp of what was going on because we were sitting on the fence whether or not we were going to do this but once we saw everything, we knew we needed to help,” Stan said by phone from Slave Lake.
“It was like we walked into a nuclear war zone, it was unreal,” Cathy said.
The Hunters bought a business licence at the makeshift town office the same day.
At the end of August, the Hunters had three houses lined up to build. Their first priority was to concentrate on the Thomases home. They set up a motorhome, which acted as their home and office, across the street. They stayed there until Nov. 1.
“Every single family has a story of how they got out and what they took with them,” Cathy said.
She explained that the Thomases barely got out with their children, Caitlin, 18, Blake, 14, and Abby, three.
“The police blocked off their street so she (Dawn Thomas) just left her car and ran and got her kids,” Cathy said.
But as the family fled the area, they were forced to turn around and frantically speed off in the other direction as the fire jumped the road.
“So when you hear all of this you just think someone has to go up there and help.”
Later, the Hunters tried using a nearby hotel but the $15,000 cost per month to house their subcontractors — people from a long list of other dedicated Red Deer businesses — was too much to bear. The business now operates out of a rented duplex.
Cathy said before they decided to build the houses in Slave Lake, they had to contact their subtrade partners such as plumbers, dry wallers and electricians.
“Without their help this is pretty hard to do and they were all on board so we were really fortunate.
“Our crews and my husband, we all have become very attached to the families up there,” Cathy said.
“I have seen more tears shed on these job sites than I have ever seen before, which is not a real common thing when you’re building homes.”
But building homes has had its fair share of issues. With much of the infrastructure damaged, it was difficult to know what was happening with cables and utilities, Stan said.
All things considering, the company was able to complete the Thomases’ new home by December.
The Hunters and their six employees travel back and forth between Red Deer and Salve Lake, visiting their families on the weekends. Cathy said Stan has been in Red Deer only 15 nights since they started. The company planned on operating in Slave Lake for a year and a half and will re-establish itself in Red Deer this December.
“My intention is to complete what I’ve started and we will see how it goes,” Stan said.
“I think it is always something to look back on and say we did our part and I think for all my boys and my workers, it has been a good experience.”
Stan Hunter Construction Ltd. has completed four houses, with two more nearing completion. They intend to complete 10 to 12 houses in Slave Lake.
“It is quite emotional, these people lost everything,” Stan said.