Dousing an urge to burn

It will likely take a generation before a sense of peace and safety is fully restored for many people in Slave Lake.

It will likely take a generation before a sense of peace and safety is fully restored for many people in Slave Lake.

Perhaps, given the devastating nature of the fire that swept through the Northern Alberta town a year ago, a feeling of foreboding will linger for much longer.

That’s human nature, given the power of the wildfire that destroyed almost 400 homes, many business and public buildings, and drove the entire population of 6,800 people to seek refuge elsewhere.

Most people who lost their homes are still living in trailers, awaiting new construction. Or they have moved away, unwilling to be surrounded by the memories.

The images of the ravaged town should also remain in the memory banks of the rest of us — and should serve as a stark reminder of just how powerful, and overwhelming, fire can be.

The Slave Lake damage, estimated at $700 million, puts it second only to the 1998 Quebec ice storm in terms of financial impact of a Canadian disaster. And monetizing a disaster often minimizes it: the toll on human lives is so much more difficult to quantify, yet cuts to the bone.

On the anniversary of the Slave Lake fire, there is no better time to reflect on the potential a spark can carry.

Albertans are preparing to head out for their first long weekend of mild weather, into the parks and forests that we are so proud of.

As we do so, we are being warned about the exceptionally dry conditions around the province. Fire bans are being issued by municipalities and the province, which has prohibited open fires in all forested areas.

Several wildfires are now burning in the province. The provincial government’s daily wildfire report for Wednesday listed two fires out of control in Alberta, one being held and 11 still burning but under control.

In total, 275 men and women were battling those blazes (the only death in the Slave Lake fire was that of a pilot fighting the blaze; it is an extremely hazardous and arduous job).

In total, 8,191 acres of forest has burned already this spring in Alberta, as the result of 317 fires.

Millions of dollars will be spent battling fires this year, more people will be displaced and yet more property will be damaged or destroyed. Albertans will suffer health problems, particularly those with breathing difficulties. Wildlife and livestock will be destroyed.

Yet many Albertans persist in being careless, regardless of the dry conditions.

Humans are responsible for igniting 60 per cent of all wildfires, the Slave Lake fire included. In November, the province announced that it had ruled out all causes of the fire except arson. At that point, the file was turned over to the RCMP. No suspect has been arrested.

Don’t be the person responsible for the next fire.

And don’t let others, if at all possible, create the spark that leaves another community devastated.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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