The Aftermath

Picking up the pieces.

As the fires themselves abated, municipal workers began to assess the toll. Rather than wholesale destruction, the flames seemed to have taken an almost sentient path. Untouched homes stood next to smoldering foundations. At an auto dealership, rows of brand new vehicles sat untouched beside their gutted counterparts. Recovery of our affected communities is a process that will take years. But just months after disaster struck, progress has been remarkable.

For residents and rescue workers alike, the first days after the fire were difficult to say the least. Initially, not much was known about the status of homes and businesses. What little information the MD had acquired was withheld by higher authorities. Uncertainties arose over returning to jobs, getting kids back to school, filing insurance claims and many other post-disaster considerations. Just witnessing the charred remains of homes, parks and businesses was shocking to all.

"It broke my heart as I drove through the area. It reminded me of a graveyard in a horror movie."

Despite mounting pressure and the occasional voice of dissent, the Planning department within the Emergency Operations Center worked diligently to rebuild broken communities and get residents back home as quickly and safely as possible. A phased re-entry plan was established and persistently followed. Initially, municipal employees, RCMP, Alberta Health Services, and similar groups responsible for a community to operate were allowed to return. Essential service workers began repairing gas, power and water infrastructure. Soon afterward, essential businesses such as gas stations, grocery stores and pharmacies were able to follow. And then residents began re-entry into their communities. Some returned to their homes, and others to nothing at all.


Facts & Figures

01 On May 14, 2011, two separate fires burned within the MD. A third fire would begin the next day.

02 May 15, 100 kilometer-per-hour winds stirred up the fires, threatening lives and infrastructure.

03 The Lesser Slave wildfires caused one of the largest displacements of residents in Alberta's history.

04 At the peak of the disaster there were more than 1,500 additional emergency workers in the area.

05 A variety of local and interprovincial emergency personnel, as well as MD staff, Councillors and residents, helped combat the disaster.

06 Alberta had not seen devastation like this since the fire of 1919 that displaced 300 in Lac La Biche.

07 The total economic impact of the Lesser Slave River wildfires could exceed $1 billion.

08 Collectively, the Lesser Slave wildfires consumed almost 22 thousand hectares.

09 In total, almost 750 individuals and families in the area lost their homes.

10 The crisis was designated a level four emergency; the highest possible designation that involves a sustained government-wide response.


Voices from the Front Line

A lot happened in the first few days. Things came at us pretty fast and just didn't stop. I cannot begin to express my gratitude and pride in the resourcefulness of the MD employees and elected officials during this catastrophic event. Had we not had the strong working relationship before the fire, things could have easily run off the tracks at multiple points.
Allan Winarski, Chief Administrative Officer

Emergency Operations

Bravely facing a wall of fire.

As soon as the first fire was spotted on the afternoon of May 14, the Sustainable Resource Development team (SRD) sprang into action. So too did regional firefighters, municipal workers, local businesses and the ordinary citizens of Lesser Slave River. Though these disparate groups had vastly different resources, abilities and knowledge, they worked together in pursuit of a common goal: protection of their communities.

Fanned by winds reaching 100 km/h and fueled by a bone-dry forest, the fire spread incredibly quickly. Midafternoon on day one, it was a by-the-numbers firefighting operation similar to the hundreds that SRD douse every year. But by the next day, there were two fires burning out of control and heading straight toward densely populated areas.

"It was the hottest, windiest, darkest, scariest fire I've ever been in as a firefighter. Worse than anything I could have imagined."

As bad as the situation seemed, it grew even worse. Power failed. Water supplies ran dry. Air support was grounded due to excessive winds. Radio communications went down. Key structures and apparatus were consumed by the flames. Despite this progressive worsening of the odds, heroic individuals of every stripe stayed behind to fight. The effects of the fire were devastating to say the least, but they could have been far worse were it not for the tireless efforts, quick decisions and selfless acts of firefighters, RCMP, Sustainable Resource Development, Motor Transport, Fish and Wildlife, MD Council and staff, Town Council and staff, private businesses and countless public citizens.

In the heat of battle, the course of events and responses is always fast and often confusing. Now that the smoke has cleared, the critical roles played by certain groups and individuals have become more apparent and remarkable. This section is dedicated to recognition of their contributions.


Facts & Figures

01 The total anticipated cost of the disaster from insurance claims alone hovers around $700 million.

02 The Lesser Slave river wildfires escalated quickly to a level four emergency – the highest possible designation for an environmental disaster.

03 At the height of the disaster, there were over 1,500 firefighters, 100 helicopters, 20 air tankers and a fleet of heavy machinery fighting the blaze.

04 To restore order and refocus efforts, Tom Sampson, Deputy Chief of CEMA, declares Slave Lake a dry town for the duration of the crisis.

05 The heat from the fires was so intense that cast aluminum wheel rims puddled underneath vehicles, fireproof safes burst open, and super-heated moisture caused concrete basement foundations to explode.

06 Additional labour and resource costs incurred during the disaster exceeded $20 million.

07 By midafternoon on May 15, the sun was completely blocked out by smoke and is not seen again until the following morning.

08 56 homes were destroyed in the MD of Lesser Slave River and an additional 56 structures were heavily damaged.

09 In total, more than 400 homes in the region were destroyed, including six apartment complexes.

10 Though there were no casualties as a direct result of the fires, pilot Jean-Luc Deba tragically lost his life when his helicopter crashed while retrieving water from Slave Lake.


[powr-media-gallery label="2385625"]

Voices from the Front Line

If our 1400 men and women from Calgary Fire Services were lined up on that road...if you told us it was coming...and if we had every apparatus ready to go, we could not have stopped that fire. It was unprecedented. It was unstoppable.
Brian McAsey, Calgary Fire Services Public Information Officer

Disaster Timeline

A clear spring day turns to chaos.

Wildfires are certainly not uncommon in northern Alberta. In the spring of 2011 there were 146 recorded in the Lesser Slave River area alone. In most cases, these fires are kept at bay by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD). In this instance, however, winds reaching 100km/h made suppression next to impossible.

Flames spread incredibly quickly and bypassed barriers put in their way by fire crews. Glowing embers were carried up to fifteen kilometers. Water bombers and helicopters were eventually grounded due to extreme winds and excessive chop in the nearby lake. All pre-existing man-made checks and balances were thwarted by the elements. In the words of Calgary Fire Services Public Information Officer Brian McAsey: "If our 1400 men and women were lined up on that road, if you told us it was coming, and if we had every apparatus ready to go, we could not have stopped that fire. It was unprecedented. It was unstoppable."

"It was incredibly windy that day. My husband and I were doing yard work when we saw the first water bomber fly over."

The toll of this catastrophe continues to be calculated. But despite one of the largest displacements of residents in Alberta's history, and despite the tragic loss of homes and businesses, common accounts from those on the ground are immense pride in the people of Lesser Slave River, and sheer amazement that not a single life was lost to the flames.


Facts & Figures

01 On May 14, 2011, two separate fires burned within the MD. A third fire would begin the next day.

02 May 15, 100 kilometer-per-hour winds stirred up the fires, threatening lives and infrastructure.

03 The Lesser Slave wildfires caused one of the largest displacements of residents in Alberta's history.

04 At the peak of the disaster there were more than 1,500 additional emergency workers in the area.

05 A variety of local and interprovincial emergency personnel, as well as MD staff, Councillors and residents, helped combat the disaster.

06 Alberta had not seen devastation like this since the fire of 1919 that displaced 300 in Lac La Biche.

07 The total economic impact of the Lesser Slave River wildfires could exceed $1 billion.

08 Collectively, the Lesser Slave wildfires consumed almost 22 thousand hectares.

09 In total, almost 750 individuals and families in the area lost their homes.

10 The crisis was designated a level four emergency; the highest possible designation that involves a sustained government-wide response.


Voices from the Front Line

A lot happened in the first few days. Things came at us pretty fast and just didn't stop. I cannot begin to express my gratitude and pride in the resourcefulness of the MD employees and elected officials during this catastrophic event. Had we not had the strong working relationship before the fire, things could have easily run off the tracks at multiple points.
Allan Winarski, Chief Administrative Officer

Evacuation Efforts

Escaping the line of fire.

During any type of environmental crisis, the very first consideration is people. Stationed at the MD Office and comprised of Councillors and municipal employees, the Emergency Operations Centre stood at the ready to alert residents of the approaching disaster. To those making phone calls or knocking on doors, there was a delicate balance at play: communicate the gravity and convey a sense of urgency, but remain calm and don't allow panic to take root.

Public response tends to vary when faced with something as unprecedented as a natural disaster, and on the weekend of May 14, communities within Lesser Slave River were no different. Some knew it was coming and had already begun to pack. Others doubted that a forest fire would reach their town unchecked. Many were oblivious to the event until they received a phone call from the MD (which by then had turned into the EOC). Before long, however, one only had to look to the sky to appreciate the magnitude of the situation.

"We saw a large black cloud and we thought 'this is something we've never seen before.' And then we saw fire dropping out of the sky."

Some communities in the paths of the looming fires were put on a two-hour evacuation notice, giving residents time to pack, prepare, steel themselves emotionally and wait. During this time frame, Sustainable Resource Development was working to establish a trigger point; a point at which the fires would become unmanageable and evacuation would become necessary. On Saturday, the first trigger point was reached, and at a second one at noon on Sunday. Each time, affected residents were forced to leave their homes and most of their belongings behind.


Facts & Figures

01 The Lesser Slave River wildfires caused one of the largest displacements of residents in Alberta's history.

02 Roughly 400 residents were evacuated from the MD of Lesser Slave River on the evening of May 14.

03 By noon on Sunday May 15, more than 1600 Lesser Slave residents were evacuated from the area.

04 In total, 732 families in the Lesser Slave River region lost their homes to the flames.

05 In the span of six days, the ARC rescued more than 300 animals left behind during the evacuation.

06 Collectively, the three mid-May wildfires consumed close to 22 thousand hectares, or the equivalent of 44 thousand football fields.


[powr-media-gallery label="2375809"]

Voices from the Front Line

As neighbours and friends, the whole community pitched in that night. Putting up strangers in their homes, and over the next two weeks volunteering to cook, clean, and help with donated items at the hall. For the two week evacuation, our small community opened their hearts their homes, and volunteered as well, to meet the need.
Darren Fulmore, Councillor

Subcategories

MD of Lesser Slave River

Just a few hours due north of Edmonton, Lesser Slave River is a truly unique place to live, work and play. From breathtaking expanses of boreal forest and unspoiled natural wonders to a thriving economy and genuine work/life balance, opportunities abound. Here you'll discover a place of rugged beauty. A place of real people. A place you'll never want to leave.

General Contact Info

 info (@) mdlsr.ca
 780.849.4888
 1.866.449.4888
 780.849.4939

Social Connections