Since his appointment as Chief of the Smoky River Fire Department, Marcel Maure in conjunction with Smoky River FCSS, EMS, other first responders and CAO’s has been working on coordinating a thorough Emergency Preparedness plan for the region.
While we all assume that these things will never happen to us, that mindset makes the reality even more daunting in the event of an emergency.
Crystal Marschner, Youth and Family Programmer with FCSS in Falher, lived through the Slave Lake fire and gives a very graphic account as to what it means to be caught in such a crisis.
“You never think it is going to happen to you, but it was surreal, says Marschner. “You never think as a Canadian citizen that you will be put on refugee status. But that’s what we were. When you are forced from your home you become a refugee.”
According to Marschner the first responders were taken by surprise at the magnitude of the fire. The fire fighters were running from house to house kicking in doors to make sure that nobody was inside, then moving to the next house as fire was overtaking the one they had just left.
“There were a lot of emotions. I remember driving out of Slave Lake with my three boys who were 3, 4 and 5 at the time and my nephew who was also 4 and the houses were on fire on either side of us. The kids were saying ‘we are going to die, mommy we are going to die,’ and I kept reassuring them we were going to be ok even though I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was wondering where do you go to from here.”
Marschner and her husband were fortunate that their home was spared, but her parents’ house, her childhood home, was lost.
It was two weeks before she, her husband, and three kids could return home, and eighteen months by the time her parents rebuilt and moved in.
Eighteen months was a relatively short period to wait considering there were different burn zones, some needing the entire infrastructure replaced; roads, power, water, sewer had to be replaced, which was a lengthy process.
“Because my parents were on a street that only had three or four houses burn they were able to get in there faster,” says Marschner.
Of course, everyone learns from experience and the Slave Lake’s Emergency Preparedness is now more coordinated and other communities have learned from the Slave Lake fire and subsequently the fire in Fort McMurray.
“There are two access points to the south east part of Slave Lake and that was the part of town that was on fire. One of those access points was where the fire was entering the town and the other was blocked with people trying to leave. So they had to look at how to open up more access points in case of another emergency.”
Apart from the community at large and the first responders being prepared, it is advisable that families and individuals are also prepared.
“One of the big lessons I learned is to make sure that you have your insurance and that it is up-to-date and take pictures of everything. Go through your closets, every room, every drawer because until you’ve lost it you don’t understand everything you have.”
Marschner says that she was lucky and managed to go home and grab some stuff but there were people who had nothing, not even their medications. Her dad who was at work at the time had to leave with only the clothes he was wearing.
“Always have something ready,” says Marschner. “It might sound paranoid but It’s only paranoid until you need it, then it is preparedness. Always have a seventy-two hour bag packed.”
The Government of Alberta website when speaking on emergency preparedness also recommends the seventy-two hour emergency kit, having an emergency plan and being mindful of having adequate insurance coverage.
Although the organizing of an emergency preparedness plan had been somewhat overlooked for about a decade prior to Fire Chief Marcel Maure appointment, the Fire Department, other first responders and community representatives are certainly not complacent and have undertaken a table top drill.
Maure says they will engage in a similar exercise again, possibly this coming November.
He also reiterates the importance of community members being prepared and having a seventy-two hour emergency response kit.
“Know where your passport is, know what your backup plans are, if you have pets be sure to have food for them for seventy-two hours,” he says. “If you have to be evacuated know where those essentials are so you can be evacuated within an hour. It is all about preparedness, about looking forward in the event of a mass emergency, something large scale where we have to evacuate large areas.”