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The Forest Fire that Took a Town

A restoration employee's first-hand account of the devastation in Slave Lake, Alberta


August 1, 2011   by Martin Moran


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The sun was dipping over the treetops as I made my way to Slave Lake, Alta on May 26, 2011. I hadn’t been back to Alberta for some time, and had missed how late it stays light this far North. I had already passed a stand of tall, charred timber, the remnants from a previous forest fire, apparently nothing new for the people who live in this area. A fire had burned right through the heart of town ten days ago, and soon residents were going to be let back into the town to inspect their homes.  Already, bus tours of Slave Lake residents and insurance personnel had gone through the town – although it was simply a tour and inspection, with no one allowed to leave the busses.

Reaching the checkpoint the RCMP had set up on Highway 2, I waited while the officers called the detachment to confirm my credentials, and then waived me through. Security was still very tight, and I was only allowed in as FirstOnSite Restoration was already in town working on some essential services. There had been almost no traffic on the road for some time, but now I had an escort: A young black bear loped across the road in front of me, without a care in the world except to stay out of my way. I continued on the highway, passing through an area where the road, the road signs, and the trees were stained bright pink – remnants of fire retardant, sprayed as a barrier, to prevent the fire from crossing the road.

I had flown to Edmonton the previous Sunday, to meet with adjusters and insurers, and to act as a liaison between our staff on the ground and the people that would be handling the claims on behalf of the residents of Slave Lake. I now made my way to our command centre – a leased house with ten acres. We would soon house and feed 150 workers here, all of whom were committed to helping rebuild the town and surrounding communities that were devastated by the massive wind-driven fire. Our secured command centre, equipped with a mess hall, satellite television and Wi-Fi access, would also temporarily act as a launching point for a dozen adjusters and other claims personnel that like us were there to help rebuild the town.

The town

The Town of Slave Lake is located on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, a large beautiful lake in Northern Alberta. Our camp, situated at an area known locally as “the point”, was very close to where the Lesser Slave River entered into Lesser Slave Lake. Highway 88 meets Highway 2 at the south end of Slave Lake, and driving northeast along Highway 88, you pass by the majority of the destroyed homes to the north. Here, approximately 200 residences were devastated by the fire.

The fire came to the town quickly, driven by winds that approached 100 kilometers per hour – a true fire storm. These winds were indiscriminate, and rather than smolder and cause adjacent properties to burn, the fire was driven from structure to structure by the wind, inexplicably sparing some buildings and destroying others. On Main Street, directly across from the destroyed town hall, an automobile dealership remained standing; the two large commercial businesses on either side were total losses, ready to be bulldozed.

For 18 years prior to joining FirstOnSite Restoration, I was an independent adjuster, and had seen my share of destruction, from bus and tractor-trailer collisions to tragic fires.  Nothing had prepared me for the sobering and humbling devastation I saw when I made that first trip along Highway 88. In the dim light, I thought that to my left might be undeveloped land, or a large park; then I recognized the charred trees, the hulking shells of pickup trucks, the skeletons of backyard trampolines that signified that before May 16, there had been a thriving community here. A very heavily policed ghost town had replaced an area when once families played, baseball diamonds and soccer fields bustled with activity and businesses thrived.

The work

FirstOnSite Restoration immediately began to help do their part to rebuild the town, and restore the properties that were needed to help the residents return. Two of our first jobs were the RCMP detachment – which needed to be secured before the RCMP would allow property owners and residents to return – and one of two local supermarkets that would get food supplies moving. Concentrating first on community businesses to get the infrastructure stable, we began the hard work and heavy lifting, from cleaning local restaurants to helping local churches re-open for Sunday service. We worked with both the adjusters and the insureds, helping them to re-open as quickly as possible, so that life could return to normal in town. We even helped to re-open both the Boston Pizza and a local sports bar so that people would have somewhere to go and watch Vancouver’s run in the Stanley Cup Finals.

As residents were allowed to return, we turned our attention to the homeowners’ claims. Power had been cut off to the town for a considerable time, meaning that all of the refrigerators and freezers had to be replaced. Remember my friend the bear? At one point, he and 39 of his gang-members were spotted in town – no doubt treating the duct-taped appliances as a zip locked buffet. As people returned to their residences, they were given a package that included several brightly coloured cards that were to be taped to the windows of the homes; they outlined which utilities were still needed. Once restored, the cards were turned over to read “Done”.

Given the wind-driven nature of the fire, we were surprised at first to see such a small volume of ash and soot in most buildings – it was present, but much thinner than anticipated. The high winds also drove the fire away from many houses, so there were many fewer homes that were partially damaged on the exterior than expected. There were more than 370 homes totally destroyed by the fire, but just over 55 that had partial exterior damage. As the claims were investigated, there was additional evidence of damaged siding, shingles and other partial required repairs, but the extensive damages that were expected were not prevalent.

FirstOnSite Restoration made a commitment to assist in the rebuilding of Slave Lake, which may well prove to be Canada’s largest single catastrophe event. We put together a large team of people and resources, initially drawing staff from the western provinces, and eventually mobilizing crews and equipment from Ontario and Quebec as well. As we began working with the people of Slave Lake, irrespective of where we were from, they repeatedly told us that they were happy to have us present in such numbers to help their community.

Headed by Billy Short, our vice president of large loss, and Steve Gregg, our district general manager for the Greater Toronto Area, our team was welcomed into the town as we began our work. Our commitment to Slave Lake did not stop at restoring property  – we hired more than 30 local residents to work with us – from labourers, to camp workers, to office staff. We also preferentially sought local sub-trades wherever possible, as it was both cost-effective for our customers, and reflective of the commitment we were making to the town.

The reward

Shortly after I joined FirstOnSite Restoration, we launched our new Mission, Vision and Values – the core of what we want each of our staff members to live by. When it was initially launched, the section that describes what we do stood out for me:
“Our mission is to deliver rapid and superior disaster restoration services to Canadians in times of emergency.  We protect, preserve and restore order. We put things right – the right way – each and every time.”

This statement was the embodiment of the work we were doing in Slave Lake. There was always an altruistic sense I had when I was an adjuster that each day, I could bring some good to someone’s life. This feeling continues today in the good, honest labour that our employees perform, day in and day out. It is especially evident in an area like Slave Lake,
where a community lay in ruins. There are certainly many months, and possibly years, of work to be done to rebuild the town. With recent heavy rains flooding an already fragile community, our restoration work in Slave Lake will continue for some time. As the next phase of the town’s renewal lies ahead, and whenever our work winds down, we will always know that while in Slave Lake, we did protect, preserve and restore order. It is what we do best.

Martin Moran is the director of business development, Western Canada, with FirstOnSite Restoration. 


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