Travelling up to Slave Lake Thursday morning was an experience few who made the journey are likely to forget. Arriving at the RCMP road block and check stop, if your name was not on the list of essential workers or businesses deemed essential, you were not getting in . It was as simple as that.
Driving into town off the highway shortly after 8:30 a.m. was similar to being out and about early on a Sunday morning, yet eerily reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie where only the scientists in their hazmat outfits patrolled the town devastated by some zombie-spawning virus.
But Slave Lake was not hit with a zombie virus – it was hit by a devastating wildfire, a merciless and unforgiving force of nature whose path of destruction is easily seen wherever its flaming fingers decided to caress.
And while the fire’s damage has been televised and displayed for all to see, the other damage remained largely unseen until businesses were allowed to return to clean up their stores. More than a week without hydro left convenience and grocery stores, restaurants and eateries inventory a putrid and soggy mess.
The lack of people on the streets, the smell of decaying meat in the dumpsters and the acrid smell of smoke still in the air could leave one with the impression they had wandered into Camping’s prediction that the Rapture had happened, at least in the streets of Slave Lake. And yet if that is what happened, the wrong people got left behind.
For amid the devastation, the confusion and the suppressed emotions, there was nothing but generosity and kindness in the hearts of those who toiled to set things right last week. The store manager who stayed with the business until police told him to leave or be arrested. The convenience store dealer who has taken a total stranger into his home because the stranger’s apartment building was destroyed in the flames. The firefighters who after days of risking life and limb to battle fires, took a moment to help a shop keeper move his 20-foot sign knocked down by the winds behind his store. The company who arranged to delay erecting the sign until the local contractor, who lost his house in the fire, could get himself together to do the job. The company who waved shipping charges to fill an emergency order to restock shelves. All signs of compassion and consideration during a time when the cynic would rightfully think it were every person for themselves.
As we wind our way through life at ever increasing speeds, often failing to acknowledge the neighbour next to us, let alone give any thought to what he might be going through, how comforting it is to know that when true need is there and the brakes of life are applied beyond our control, people will go out of their way to lend a hand to each other.
Those of us who left Slave Lake Thursday night could not help but notice a fire engine with its ladder extended parked in the tourist information centre. Proudly fluttering from the ladder’s upper most rung was an enormous Canadian flag. It is that symbol that greeted returning Slave Lake residents Friday morning, but within the town can be found everything that flag truly embodies.