Story and photos by Stephen Dafoe
Slave Lake – Rain drizzles from grey skies a month-to-the-day too late to be of any use in combatting the massive devastation that ravaged large parts of the community May 15. But while the skies are dreary, the outlook in the community is anything but. People nod and greet each other on the streets of a community on the cusp of rebuilding. The local college now houses town offices destroyed by the fire as well as the Red Cross who have come in to help. Restaurants are full of regulars who are picking up the pieces of their lives and newcomers who are here to assist in the rebirth that will happen, each group cheerfully served as if the tragedy had never happened, as if the health notices that were taped on restaurant doors only two weeks ago had never been there.
Despite the devastation, despite the adversity, despite the struggles, there is a sense of hope and a sense of optimism that can not only be seen but felt. It pours out in the laughter of the man buying lottery tickets and coffee and the local Mac’s Convenience Store. It pours out of the friendly conversation between two smokers leaning under an awning to avoid the raindrops they would have welcomed when the fire raged. And it pours from the heart of Slave Lake Chamber of Commerce President Neil Deas, a man whose Chevrolet dealership was untouched but whose home was completely destroyed despite his standing on the roof with a garden house trying to save it.
“I think the big story going forward is how we rose out of the ashes and built ourselves back up again,” Deas said, adding media coverage has diminished post devastation. “We’re off the radar now because it’s old news, but I would really like the new news to be how quickly we got back on our feet again.”
But that is the story because that is what is happening in Slave Lake emotionally, philosophically and in more concrete boots-on-the-ground terms.
“[With] the vast majority of people I interact with – customers and staff alike – the mood is upbeat and optimistic,” Deas said. “In spite of what looks like could be some delays in getting housing started because of the destruction of some of the services and infrastructure … the good news is there are sections of town that can start to rebuild immediately.”
Deas said he believes rebuilding could begin in some areas within a couple of weeks, a situation he and the Chamber believe will only add to the positive feelings in the community. “I think when people see houses going up again, and the clean up is done, I think that will inject even more optimism and good spirits into the whole thing in terms of where it’s going,” he said. “It’s an important step. I think it’s important that we don’t stay stagnant for very long, and I think that message is loud and clear to everyone. They really want to move ahead.”
But optimism and positive feelings considered; Slave Lake’s business community is not without its difficulties. Nineteen businesses were directly affected by the fire, but a greater number have been affected by the overall effects on the community. Deas said the biggest challenge facing Slave Lake businesses is the lack of employees. “There were 300 apartment units destroyed,” he said. “A large number of employees were housed in those units, and the immediate challenge is finding housing for these people. Many of them have moved on. Without a place to live and their needing to continue to make money, in many cases they’ve gone to other communities, rented a place, found a job.”
The Chamber president said the business organization’s current role is to be a partner in the best way it can to help keep employees in the community. They will do that by continuing to work with the Town of Slave Lake, advocating for the businesses, and keeping the community mindful of area businesses’ need to keep their shops and businesses staffed. It is something Deas believes the town is working hard towards already.
“There are businesses that are under stress because of employee issues,” he said. “We’re doing our best to get that message across to the municipality and the other government agencies that are working diligently to try and solve the problems that we are having here.”
The Chamber is also working to help a couple of smaller businesses who have lost equipment and tools. Part of that initiative will come through a $7,000 donation from the Morinville and District Chamber of Commerce as well as other monies being raised for Slave Lake’s business community. Morinville’s cheque was hand delivered Wednesday by Chamber Manager Jaye Parrent and Vice President Heather Folkins, who toured the town and were uplifted by the sense of community and desire to get things moving again.
Although ensuring local businesses have the tools to get on with business and to weather the current staffing shortage problem, the Slave Lake Chamber is also looking after the interest of property owners by working with the Canadian Home Builders Association to ensure those coming in to rebuild the community are vetted and qualified to do the work. “They have to be vetted through there so that we know for sure that those that are coming into town are legitimate builders,” said Slave Lake Chamber Manager Annie Aarts. “You can’t just say Joe the handyman can come in and try and do this. That is one thing we as a chamber were really quite concerned about.”
For Aarts, returning to Slave Lake and seeing the destruction of homes was something she thought she’d be prepared for, having followed the news reports of the devastation after being forced to evacuate.
“When I came back to the community, it was totally different than what I had imagined,” she said. “You see all the news. You see all the pictures. You see even the burnt down homes. And then when you get in here, it’s like a warzone.”
Despite living in the community for the past two decades, something as simple as finding a friend’s home – unaffected by the fires – was a challenge due to the destruction of the visual markers she had always used to find it in the past.
The hit and miss nature of the fire has affected the business community here, as it has all segments of Slave Lake. Aarts said some business owners lost their homes, others their business, some both. Many who lost their businesses are looking for other facilities, wanting to maintain their life and business interests in Slave Lake. But through it all is a desire within the community to help one another.
Some have found alternate business accommodations through the assistance of other businesses. The Century 21 office is now housed in a space provided by the local Brick furniture store. A local home builder is now sharing office accommodations with the ReMax office. Deas said he understands the Yamaha dealer, whose business was completely destroyed, also has temporary accommodations in the works.
Some Morinville help for local homeless
While Slave Lake’s business community is helping one another get back on their feet, and Morinville’s Chamber has made the trip to offer their financial contribution to that mission, Town of Morinville Community Services Coordinator Amy Dribnenky began her first shift helping those who have nowhere to live. Dribnenky is in Slave Lake for the remainder of June working with the Town of Slave Lake in their housing centre call centre.
“We’re taking any calls that come in from families that have been displaced,” Dribnenky said, adding she is working on updating the data base of displaced residents. “We’re finding out how many people in the family, so they’ll be able to better assist in finding housing as it becomes available.”
Beyond finding out how many bedrooms a family may need, the calls also offer Dribnenky and her fellow volunteers an opportunity to find out if families have insurance and if they have contacted their insurance company about their loss.
Dribnenky said Morinville CAO Edie Doepker received a request for assistance from Slave Lake, which was channelled to Community Services Director Susan MacDonald who asked Dribnenky if she wanted to be part of offering assistance to the community. She jumped at the opportunity.
The FCSS coordinator arrived Tuesday night and received training Wednesday morning with two volunteer counterparts from High Prairie who will also work alongside town staff.
“It’s one of those things where the form is very basic – it’s the questions on the phone that are hard to prepare for,” Dribnenky said, adding she had made several calls Wednesday to follow up with people who had previously been spoken to. “Part of the job is following up with people who have to be updated. These are people that have already called in and registered. Slave Lake has been putting out the word that if your home is burnt to call and register because that gives them a better ability to help people that are displaced, and to see what needs there are.”
Like Parrent, Folkins and their Slave Lake counterparts, Dribnenky has experienced a general positive attitude in the community thus far. “[It’s] just a strong sense of community,” she said. “Everybody that I’ve talked to has been very positive and very dedicated to helping their neighbours to get through this.”
Dribnenky was instrumental in organizing and coordinating Morinville’s collection of clothing and non-perishables May 16 and 17, goods and food that went to Westlock and Athabasca where many displaced residents were housed until they could return to Slave Lake.