Monday, June 27, 2011

Reflecting on the Slave Lake Fire

Imagine being at ground zero just moments after a nuclear bomb drops. That’s how Public Information Officer Brian McAsey describes Slave Lake as he reflects on the devastating fire that burned down a third of the town a month ago in one of the most devastating fires Canada has ever seen.

“Everything was on fire when we got there,” says McAsey. “I’ve never seen anything like it. If someone would have told me a third of a town could burn down like that, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

McAsey was one of 140 members of the Calgary Fire Department who, along with Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA), Canada Task Force 2 and Public Safety Communications, went to Slave Lake on May 14 to help put out fires, evacuate a hospital, and get 11,000 evacuees back into their homes.

“More than half of the department volunteered to go up,” says McAsey. “Those that weren’t able to go helped just as much by staying in Calgary and keeping our city safe.”

With more than 100 fires burning in and around the Slave Lake area, the fire department worked around the clock alongside 1,400 other emergency and utility workers over a two-week period to get the town running again. About eight hours after arriving, the crew was able to secure the fire so no more structures were damaged.

Calgary sent the largest contingency to the scene in terms of both manpower and equipment. Aside from fighting fires, Calgary's team established an Emergency Command Centre, distributed food and water, put up 20 kilometres of fencing and did anything they could to help out, including some unconventional things like accounting.

“It was amazing to work beside emergency and utility workers who had their own houses burn down in the fire,” says McAsey. “People were sleeping on floors and in trucks. They were extremely resilient and tough.”

Once the threat of fire was contained, emergency workers had to get potable water and power back to homes still standing so evacuees could move back in. McAsey says there are many incredible circumstances you don’t think about in times of crisis, like figuring out how to dispose of 11,000 refrigerators full of rotting food.

“We had to make sure the gas was back on, ensure everyone had a phone and get rid of every refrigerator before we could move anyone back in,” he says. “Every day was a huge challenge.”

Despite the challenges, McAsey appreciates the opportunity to help out and is proud of the effort everyone put in, especially City employees.

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