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Friday, 03 June 2011 16:11

Scary situation for former Swift Current residents in Slave Lake

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By Gail Jansen
Swift Current

Swift Current resident Joanne Kempel was just thankful she was at the right place at the right time.

Kempel who lived in Slave Lake for over 15 years, was visiting her two adult daughters and their families who still reside there, when fire surrounded the small town of 7,000 and residents were put on notice that they might soon need to evacuate.

“It was very scary,” says Kempel.  “It was like being in a movie.  We were all lined up on the roads to get out of town, but I’m so glad I was there with them, instead of at home worrying.”

Kempel and her daughters, sons-in-law, and new grandbaby were well prepared to leave with a travel trailer all hooked up to go Saturday May 14th.  While the town would not give an official evacuation order until 2 days later, with the baby to consider, they weren’t taking any chances.

Now with all safe and sound, Kempel’s youngest daughter Caitlyn and her husband Rory have since returned to Slave Lake after spending the past week or so in Swift Current. Both were recently recalled back to work at the lumber mill in Slave Lake, as it ramps up operations to fulfill the pressing need. Thankfully, says Kempel, her children’s return was greeted with a welcomed site – the site of both of their homes still standing and damage free.

“A house just 17 houses away from Caitlyn and Rory’s house was burnt to the ground,” says Kempel.  “And they bulldozed an entire block between that house and theirs to keep the fire from spreading – but theirs still remained untouched.  No smoke damage or anything.  They were very lucky.”

Equally lucky was Kempel’s good friend and current Slave Lake resident Gerry Allarie, who in addition to owning the local Slave Lake Brick franchise, also owns a number of other businesses, and was asked by Emergency personnel if he would remain in town despite the evacuation order, to continue operating his dry cleaning business, to outfit emergency personnel.

Asked in a telephone interview Tuesday, about what it was like to live in Slave Lake during the period of evacuation, Allarie says it was all very “surreal.”

“Police cars outnumbered civilian cars 5 to 1,” said Allarie. “There were over 190 police officers in Slave Lake instead of our usual 14.  We had members of the Calgary fire department, who were all happy to have been there helping, but even they had never before seen such devastation.”

For Allarie who survived the nearly two weeks in Slave Lake without running water, or electricity by living out of his son’s motorhome parked in the Wal-Mart parking lot, it took a lot for him to make the transition from being the “giver” to being the “receiver.”

“It was really weird the first week or 8 days.  I didn’t spend one cent – there was no place to spend it.  There was no commerce happening in town.  Nothing was open.  There was no place to spend money.”

“If you needed water,” added Allarie, “there were stacks of it on the streets in bottles and you just went and helped yourself, and if you needed food you went to someplace that was serving food and just helped yourself.  If was really strange for me to be on the receiving end.”

Used to being one of the pillars of the community who helped out where he could, Allarie found it hard to be the one who needed help. “For the first 3 days I wouldn’t even go to the College to eat, because I kept thinking “I don’t need handouts,” but then I realized I had to become a part of the group.”

Thankful for the fundraising that the local Brick store here in Swift Current, and other Brick stores across the country are doing to help the residents of Slave Lake, Allarie says he’s overwhelmed by the generosity of so many.

“It’s been amazing,” says Allarie.  “I’ve had a lot of lumps in my throat over the last two weeks.  When you hear of the efforts going on by the Brick and many other companies, who are looking to take care of both their employees and the town, …it’s really quite amazing to watch it all happen.”

Allarie also finds it amazing to have been able to watch and hear firsthand of the many hero stories that have been unfolding throughout the ordeal.  From the town’s volunteer firefighters that stayed behind as they watched their families leave and their own homes burn, so that they could save the hospital, to his own neighbor, Ken Carpenter, who along with another friend drew a figurative line in the sand, and with nothing more than a tanker truck and some shovels, stopped the threat of fire from spreading on Allarie’s own block saving not only Allarie’s home, but many others as well.

For Allarie as a furniture and appliance provider, as residents return home and try to return to a sense of normalcy, a big part of that is replacing the thousands of pieces of furniture and appliances lost to fire and to lack of power.

“The biggest challenge over the past 4 days is that everybody’s fridge is full of putrid rotting food, so virtually every fridge in town has to be replaced, and now the furniture orders are starting to arrive for us as well.”

As to those who might think that this devastation will cause the town of Slave Lake to falter, Allarie has other ideas.

“Most people I’ve talked to are committed…We’re going to see a lot of money spent in the community over the next year or two, and I think it will actually create an economy on itself where the town will actually grow a bit over the 2-3 year period of this reconstruction and rebirth of the parts of the town that are missing.”

“I think most of the businesses in town are going to prosper,” adds Allarie. 

“I mean you can’t spend what’s estimated at around a billion dollars in a community the size of Slave Lake and not have most businesses gain or prosper from it in the long term.  Right from the real estate companies, to the homebuilders, to the hardware stores.  There will be a few people that don’t want to live or deal with it, and they’ll just simply move on, but new people will come and replace those jobs, and there’s going to be a lot of jobs here.”

As for what life is like now, as the town begins to repopulate, and welcome back its evacuated residents, Allarie says it’s a scene of many contrasts.

“There’s a guy cutting a lawn, and next door there’s no house.  You go down a couple of more blocks and there’s kids playing in their front yard, shooting pucks and then there’s five blocks of missing houses.”

“That’s the thing that’s struck me the most,” says Allarie.  “How people are trying to, and succeeding at getting back their lives.”

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