Five years after devastating fire, town’s fire chief pays tribute to community

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On May 16, 2011, people throughout Canada were glued to their television screens, watching in horror as a blazing fire ripped through the town of Slave Lake, Alta.

Now, five months later, residents of the rural Alberta town are working on rebuilding their lives; brick by brick, house by house.

Bridges of Love — a non-profit group in Calgary dedicated to connecting churches to their communities for inspiration and guidance in times of need — hosted an event called Beauty for Ashes on Thursday, Oct. 13 at St. John Lutheran Church in Calgary’s northeast community of Bridgeland.

The event featured Slave Lake’s fire chief Jamie Coutts as the guest of honour, who spoke of his own experience fighting the horrific fires.

Despite how accurate the media portrayed the critical situation, “many people want to hear the personal side of Slave Lake’s nightmare, from the people who were involved in it,” said Coutts.

In what was sure to be an emotional but informative evening, Coutts did not disappoint.

Jamie Coutts

Slave Lake’s fire chief Jamie Coutts shared his experiences with May’s deadly town-destroying fire in front of a captivated audience at Calgary’s St. John Lutheran Church.

Photo by: Lauren GilbartAround 20 people from all over Calgary listened attentively to Coutts’ many stories and the timeline of events.

“The devastation this town faced in three days was enough for a lifetime,” Coutts said.

With two fires raging at the same time and with only a couple dozen firefighters at the scenes, it had looked to Coutts “like all hope was gone.”

But then firefighters began arriving from all over Alberta and British Columbia, determined to do what they could do to stop the fire from spreading anywhere else.

“The firefighters were fighting for their homes,” Coutts said. “Seven firefighters lost their homes and they knew that while still fighting, which made it even harder.”

Weeks after the fires ended, Slave Lake resembled a ghost town.

“Close your eyes and imagine your favourite place to be,” Coutts said at the event. “Now take away the sound of people talking, children’s laughter, traffic and happiness. That was Slave Lake. It would be like taking Bridgeland and removing every person, everything that makes it a community.”

Despite being a rural town in northern Alberta, word spread quickly about the critical situation. Letters and donations began pouring in within days, offering support to the exhausted and disheartened firefighters and support groups.

“It was amazing how so many people from all over the world have helped us,” Coutts added. “We got a letter and money from a lady in Japan, and a group in Australia raised money for us as well. People have done so much more than we ever expected.”

Coutts explained the importance of spreading the message about what happened and helping people be prepared in case a catastrophe happens to their community.

Bridges of Love is determined to help Coutts with his vision, with hopes of bringing people together to plan for emergencies.

Marg Pollons, founding director of the group, has passionately been advocating for creating a safer and more connected community over the past four years and continues to do so every day.

“[With] the nature of [Slave Lake’s fires] and with more and more disasters happening, I think the public is starting to see the value in [emergency training],” Pollons said.

“The public sector has also started teaching community emergency response training. I think it is a very valuable tool for people that I hope we will soon be able to offer to communities.

“It does not matter that Calgary has never had a major catastrophe,” Pollons continued.

“It takes only one event to lose everything. I want the Calgary community to be as in touch with each other as possible, to make sure we are prepared for whatever may lie ahead.”

For more information on Bridges of Love and how you can help Slave Lake with its rebuilding efforts, visit its website.

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