Recovery from fire will be long

The people of Slave Lake have been displaced in devastating fashion. Certainly Canadians are not immune from the wrath of nature: wildfires, flooding rivers, tornadoes, ice storms and blizzards are often the punctuation marks of life in Canada.

The people of Slave Lake have been displaced in devastating fashion.

Certainly Canadians are not immune from the wrath of nature: wildfires, flooding rivers, tornadoes, ice storms and blizzards are often the punctuation marks of life in Canada.

But the toll in Slave Lake is uncommonly overwhelming.

Their community is in shambles and it will take months for lives there to return to some sort of normal patterns. The wildfires that still burn around that Northern Alberta community have destroyed homes and businesses, withered faith for many, and sparked uncertainties that won’t soon fade.

It will take years for the community to be restored to its former state, physically, and it could take a generation for the psychological healing to be complete for many residents — if ever, in some cases.

Many members of the Slave Lake community stood in the streets in disbelief slightly more than a week ago as a wall of flames swept over their town. When the word to evacuate finally came, the desperate race to flee meant that many possessions were left behind that are the signposts of life: photographs, mementoes, documents.

It was more than enough just to save lives — from homes and businesses, from the hospital and nursing home, residents left in disbelief. And, in most cases, they left most of their possessions behind. Often they left with only the clothes they wore. Some weren’t even sure they had enough gasoline to get out of town and, as power lines fell, even the gas pumps failed.

The sense of desperation is difficult to even imagine.

For most of us, community, family and shared memories are the foundations of our lives. The simple nature of the average life — work, meals, school, hobbies, play and all the relationships shared in those activities — make up the whole.

But when a life becomes untethered from its patterns, its people, its things and its places, most among us would be lost.

So it is essential that Canadians — and particularly Albertans — do everything in their power, through official channels and as individuals, to help restore foundation and purpose to the 7,000-some people who were forced from their homes.

Slave Lake is not just another community in Northern Alberta. Its oil and gas, forestry and fishing industries play vital roles in Alberta’s economy. It is a valuable trading and cultural centre for about 21,000 people in the isolated region. For now, at least, those roles — and those jobs — are in limbo.

The town has also lost much of its heart. The library (just a year old) is gone, a victim of the fire. The town hall is gone, and all that it stands for in terms of programs and community stability and as a monument of leadership.

At least a third of all homes are gone and many that still stand will need to be torn down or substantially rebuilt. Roads are damaged. The power grid and water and sewer systems are in shambles. Gas lines will have to be replaced. The list goes on. The cleanup, repair and replacement will be costly, dangerous and emotionally taxing.

Families from Slave Lake have begun to look ahead, to examine the next months and years of their lives, and consider what must be done to get back on track. For some, that will mean re-establishing their lives elsewhere — if however briefly.

In places like Red Deer, Slave Lake families have popped up, bringing their children to our schools and seeking the stability of another community.

When the time is right, many of those people will choose to return to Slave Lake. In the interim, we must do everything we can as individuals and society to help them rebuild their town and their faith.

And if they choose instead to stay elsewhere, we need to be prepared to embrace them into the patterns of our lives and help, in whatever small ways possible, to soothe the feelings of devastation.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.