The face of a fire
Slave Lake book offers inside look at arson-caused disaster
Wednesday, Apr 17, 2013 06:00 am
Slave Lake’s story of disaster, exodus and new beginnings
By Len Ramsey, Nicola Ramsey, Joe McWilliams and M.J. Kristoff
Visit www.stagenorth.org to purchase your copy.
The year was 2011 and the month was May. This time of year is when Alberta’s fire season first starts to rear its ugly head. For one town, it was more than ugly. It was a calamity.
A 500-hectare blaze at Nipisi near the town of Slave Lake couldn’t be contained. It became a fire dragon, eventually consuming more than 4,700 hectares, not to mention about 400 homes and displacing about 9,000 people. Only one person perished, a helicopter pilot fighting the fire on the south shore of Lesser Slave Lake.
The disaster, as town residents Len Ramsey, Nicola Ramsey, Joe McWilliams and M.J. Kristoff describe it, had “colossal proportions.”
That’s the description from the preface of the authors’ new book, The Sky was on Fire: Slave Lake’s Story of Disaster, Exodus and New Beginnings. Most of us here in St. Albert were only vaguely aware of the situation about 240 kilometres northwest of us, the smoke in the air being only one indicator. As the 100-km/h winds fanned the flames higher and faster over one weekend in the middle of the month, some of those seeking refuge found themselves in this city’s hotels, staying as impromptu guests with friends and family, and even parking their recreational vehicles to camp out in shopping centre parking lots.
There was only so much that the news stories could offer at the time. It seemed like everything happened so fast that the only people who could record anything of substance about the fire were those who were present. This book is a comprehensive photo essay, coupled with detailed written accounts by the citizens of Slave Lake. Frankly, it’s a scary read, a mixture of curiosity and concern. It might seem morbid to read these harrowing accounts and bear witness to the pictures that show so much destruction but it also serves as a warning to all that random disasters can, and do, happen.
Peter Murphy, retired University of Alberta forestry professor, writes in his introduction that the Slave Lake area is actually prone to compounded problems of fires and high winds that spur them forward.
“Despite improved ability to detect fires and improved firefighting capabilities, the community of Slave Lake was threatened or affected by four major fires before 2011,” he began, referring to separate events going back to 1968 near the small community of Vega.
“The 1968 Vega fire was one of many that started and spread quickly that spring, driven by strong dry winds from the south and east. On May 23, the Vega fire spread from the Athabasca River to just south of Slave Lake in ten hours – a distance of 60 kilometres in one day.”
This is a cautionary tale that all Albertans should read, especially those who play with fire. The 2011 Slave Lake fire was determined to be caused by arson, meaning it is possible that someone could have carelessly thrown a hot cigarette butt out of his or her car window. Another potential source is an untended firepit. Either way, thousands of people were affected by one person’s thoughtlessness, and much of our natural landscape was destroyed by it too.
Proceeds from sales of the book will go to community beautification, a scholarship for students pursuing education in the arts, and local history and archives.