Challenges did not dampen the spirit of the valley

letter to the editor from the Rural Wildfire Study Group

To the editor,

July 31, 2013 will be the 10th anniversary of the McLure Fire which resulted in the loss of 26,420 hectares of forested land, caused the evacuation of at least 3,800 people (880 for a second time) and destroyed over 80 structures, including homes, businesses and outbuildings.  The fire challenged the infrastructure and the community resources, but did not dampen the spirit or strength of the Valley and its residents.

There are many stories of the bravery of residents who helped their neighbours move cattle and horses, hosed down buildings to save them and risked their lives to notify more remote residents about the pending danger from the fire.  The local firefighters became heroes as they worked together to save much of the numerous towns and hamlets that comprise the area.  The military personnel who arrived to assist with the evacuations and the media attention were two inter-related and unexpected outcomes of the event.  Donations and assistance from across the province and country helped to address local needs.

Since the fire, local residents have worked together to restore your communities; welcoming agencies such as Mennonite Disaster Services helped to physically rebuild the lost homes and structures.  The local Search and Rescue group showed an increase of volunteers after the fire occurred.

Our research team had the opportunity to study the impacts of the McLure Fire on the local residents.

We had already studied the impacts of the Lost Creek Fire on the Municipality of the Crowsnest Pass.

When we studied the McLure Fire, we simultaneously examined the impacts of the Mallard Fire on the residents of LaRonge, Saskatchewan.  When we finished both of these studies, we developed our second and third “Lessons Learned” booklets (see our website: ruralwildfire.ca).  Our McLure Lessons Learned booklet summarizes the lessons learned from this fire experience so that other communities that experience a wildfire could benefit from what was learned.

Examples of those lessons include the importance of having strong local leadership, in coordination with government sectors, such as the Office of the Fire Commissioner; the need for a local well-designed community disaster relief program based upon local participation; and, identifying community members who are at risk during, and after, the disaster has ended.

Our interest in the impacts of wildfires on communities started with the Lost Creek Fire which led us to study the McLure and Mallard Fires.  The attention we received from our work led to an invitation by the Alberta Provincial Government to study the 2011 Slave Lake Wildfires.  Through all of this research, we have learned a great deal about the challenges that individuals, families and communities face. We have also learned about the good will of people, their strength, dedication, resilience and loyalty to their community.  The development of the McLure Wildfire Monument is an inspiration to other communities that must deal with disasters because it represents your resilient spirit and acknowledgement of your unique history.

In closing, it was a privilege to work with the Valley residents in conducting the research about the McLure Fire.  We have been able to share our findings of this fire study at international conferences and in scientific publications so others who are interested in community recovery also have the chance to learn from your experience.  Finally, your experience of the McLure Fire provided an opportunity to launch our careers in ways that we could not have imagined—the media requests we have received about wildfire impacts, the contacts from other researchers in other provinces and countries, and the invitation to conduct the Slave Lake Wildfire impact study were all enhanced by our study of your community and our dedication to this area of science.  Our sincere thanks are extended to local government and residents for their support of our research.

The Rural Wildfire Study Group

(Judith Kulig and Ivan Townshend, University of Lethbridge; William (Bill) Reimer, Concordia University; Dana Edge, Queen’s University; and, Nancy Lightfoot, Laurentian University)