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.
Voices from the Front Line