Saturday, September 03, 2011


We're going to Slave Lake again, the community that had the fire. I checked NOTAMs carefully to make sure that services were available, but there is no sign from an aviation planning point of view that there is anything wrong there. Our work is far north of the community, up above the bush and lakes of far northern Alberta, and when we're done I plan the descent to bring me into the aerodrome environment at the right speed and altitude. I'm looking for the runway, right where it's always been, perpendicular to the lake, surrounded by the town, and then I get my first glimpse of the devastation. I have landed in Slave Lake enough times that I have subconscious landmarks that help me find the way to the runway, but it's like landing at an unknown aerodrome. The swathes of nothing are startling. I find the runway nevertheless and put the airplane on it.

I ask the fueller how things have been going in the town, with reconstruction and he says that almost nothing has been rebuilt yet, in fact they hardly have a handle on how to complete the demolition. So far the burned out areas have been fenced off and the remains of vehicles are been towed away, but nothing else has been done. He and everyone else I meet in town are pretty upbeat about their situation, though. They're northerners, I guess. Life goes on and they aren't dwelling on misfortune. We call all the taxi numbers but can't get one. There's a benefit concert going on, with big name bands at a venue just out of town and everyone is taking cabs so they can drink and party. We get a ride with an FBO employee, who tells us a "secret" that I can tell you now, because it's all over. She's just been finalizing arrangements for the arrival of aircraft carrying Prince William and his new bride Kate and their retinue. This was a surprise addition to the itinerary of the royal visit, but you can't keep secrets like that in a small town. Everyone I talk to has heard that they are coming, but some think it's just a rumour to buoy their spirits, and that a prince in line to the throne of Canada wouldn't visit such a small place.

The FBO employee gave us a tour through the destroyed parts of town. Entire blocks were completely razed, just empty yards with grey crumbled foundations and a few twisted pieces of metal. There was very little that was blackened or scorched. It was just gone. Completely incinerated. The fire was so hot that the foundations now crumble to the touch. Here and there is a house that the fire jumped over, or that the firefighters managed to keep from becoming engulfed. Sometimes such relatively untouched houses are sitting between two barren holes, intact except with the siding warped in curvy waves. There's one yard where the concrete steps that once led to the front door are still standing, covered in a waterfall of molten glass. It's a ghoulish little tour.

Our driver also filled us in on some of the worst parts of the fire, not what you would expect. Everyone was evacuated from the town with no notice, and they were not permitted to return for ten days, until power, treated water and emergency services could be provided again. Imagine a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant at four in the afternoon. Now imagine a KFC that was abandoned in full operation at four in the afternoon, then left there with no refrigeration, no air conditioning and no cleaning for ten days in the heat of summer. Now add in ten other restaurants, an entire supermarket, and everyone's homes. The stench, I am told, was epic.

I go out for a jog before supper, following the trails by the river, and then crossing a road onto a park playground and across the park. At the far side of the park is a fence, but not your ordinary chain link fence to keep soccer balls from rolling into the street. It's a barricade between the park and one of the burned out areas. I turn left and run along the fence, just looking for the exit, but except for where I came in, the park is almost surrounded by burned out areas. I look at the metal that is visible in the yards. There are some cars, they look ancient, aged a hundred years in a day. The post-nuclear LA scene from Terminator 2 that shows a highway full of burned out cars does not adequately represent the effect of heat. The glass and rubber is just gone, and what's left looks more like the ash casts at Vesuvius than metal chassis. In one yard two cars are stacked one on top of another and I try to envision how that came to be. There are the remains of metal garden sheds in some yards, and after seeing several examples I realize that another common theme is trampoline skeletons. The springs are gone, I guess scattered and buried in the other rubble or incinerated with the synthetic fabric of the bed of the trampoline and the tubes that once made the round or rectangular shapes are twisted too. In one yard is a living tree, it looks like a little fruit tree, and I feel badly that no one can get in through the fence to water it. It survived a fire but may die of summer.

One of the "island" homes, an intact house amid all the devastation has three coloured printed signs inside the front window, proclaiming DONE DONE DONE on blue, pink and yellow paper. I theorize at first that the resident did not want to live there anymore, but further down the street I see what is presumably the reverse side of the same coloured paper, noting NEEDS WATER, NEEDS POWER, NEEDS GAS. Locals probably were instructed to pick up these sheets and post them in their windows to alert the utilities people that the residents had returned and were requesting restoration of services. Another sign in the front yard of what must have been a duplex gives a name and phone number, saying, "I owned the other half. Please contact me so we can decide how to proceed." Even one lot of this rubble would be hard to clear. It's not surprising that so little progress has been made.

We go for dinner at Boston Pizza, me trying not to think too hard about what the kitchen must have looked like after the fire. I notice a help wanted sign, and have seen those all over town, so I ask the server. Of fifty-seven people employed at BP before the fire, only twenty-one returned to the town after the evacuation order was lifted. Restaurant servers are typically young people, free to move where the jobs are, and they took other jobs in other towns, or just saw no reason to return. BP was one of the first restaurants to reopen. It's a chain, so the franchise was probably quickly able to source and ship full replacements for everything unusable, and it was screaming busy because most returning residents couldn't use their own kitchens.

It's actually more surprising to see how mentally healthy everyone seems than it is to gawk at the destruction. I realized during my run that this is an ancient human experience. Humans built homes and humans used fire since before history was recorded, and humans have almost always returned to rebuild. I'm glad the stench was just restaurant and grocery store meat. No one was injured badly enough for it to be reported. There are a few lost dog signs on poles, "ran away during the evacuation" doesn't bode well for a little white dog, but you never know.


majroj said...

Fine reporting. ("Reportage"?). Before it happens, it is impossible to imagine that your street, your house, can burn too when the world around yours is alight.
In Austalia they didn't used to have enforced evacuations. When their fires came, people died. Glad that was not the case there.

john said...

"... in line to the Throne of Canada."

That can only be a bathroom joke, right?

BTW, how did the fire start?

Aviatrix said...


1. No, the head of state of my country is not a bathroom joke.

2. Most likely lightning. It was a forest fire.

john said...

No offense meant. It just struck my funnybone a weird way.

TgardnerH said...

A bit of elaboration for John: Canada is a member of the Commonwealth Realms, of which there are 16, and all of which recognize the Queen of England as their symbolic head of state.
It's actually a really good thing--in the USA, the head of government (President of the United States) is the same office and person as the Head of State, which means that any time the head of government does or is accused of nasty things, it necessarily reflects badly on the Head of State, as well. This tends both to take away from the ceremonial duty (a ceremonial state dinner with Clinton mid-Lewinski scandal must have been a little awkward), and inhibit criticism. In Commonwealth nations, on the other hand, you can say whatever you like about the PM, while the King or Queen is entirely above the fray for ceremonial purposes.