One year after devastating fire, Slave Lake rebuilds
One year after a wildfire devastated Slave Lake, Alberta, the town is abuzz with the sounds of construction as new homes are built for those who lost nearly everything in the blaze.
The May 2011 wildfire swept through the town almost without warning, destroying roughly 400 homes and businesses and leaving thousands of residents homeless. Miraculously, no one was killed.
And while some decided to move on after the blaze, many decided to stay.
More than 200 new-home building permits have been issued in the past year in Slave Lake and the town is busy with the hum of work.
Dave and Brenda Derkoch and their two children decided to stay, and have been living in a trailer for the past year. Now, they are a few months away from moving into their new home, which is currently under construction.
Faced with the choice of pulling up stakes and starting over somewhere else, or staying in Slave Lake, they decided to remain in their hometown to try and help rebuild the community.
"I like to refer to it as a roller coaster ride," Brenda told CTV's Canada AM, standing outside the new home the family will soon occupy. "There have been lots of ups and downs and there have been a couple of loops lately but hopefully we're going to be leading a normal life now."
The challenges of the past year have been many. Simply learning how to live in a small space has been difficult with two teenage children. The park that their home once backed onto is now gone, and the community will never be quite the same as it was before the fire.
But for the Derkoch family, it was worth it.
"This is home. If we move our kids from the friends they know, the familiarity, I think for us it would have just been more devastating. To stay and see their friends, to be around what's familiar -- changed but familiar -- think it helps in that healing process, for our family anyway," Brenda said.
Chris and Jennifer Taylor also lost their home in the fire, and like the Derkoch family, they decided to stay and rebuild.
They've spent months living in a campground and say the last year has been emotional and filled with uncertainty. But watching their new home take shape has given them a much needed lift of spirits.
"Seeing the house [go up] and knowing in a month we will be in a brand new home, and we can get back to some normalcy in our lives, it's been huge for me," Chris Taylor told CTV Edmonton.
Jennifer added: "We could choose to be sad and stumble over that or we can choose to remember and move on."
On Tuesday, town officials, residents and work crews will come together for a ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of the fire. The event will be held at the town's new multi-rec centre which now serves as a focal point for the community.
For many in Slave Lake the anniversary will be a bittersweet occasion, said Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee.
"I think it's important to acknowledge the day and to recognize how far we've come, and the help we've received, but it is definitely a day of mixed emotions, I'd say," she told CTV Edmonton.
Among those emotions: fear of another fire.
With more than 50 wildfires currently burning in Alberta -- three of them listed as out of control -- no one is taking anything for granted in Slave Lake. The fire risk in the province is currently considered extreme.
"We're really sensitive about that and I know a lot of people are reliving their experiences from last year," Pillay-Kinnee said.
For the Derkoch family, regardless of what the future brings, they refuse to let the fire that changed their lives, define their lives.
"Right from the day that we were leaving home we had that discussion with our children," Brenda said. "We always remember that stuff is stuff, that some stuff might be more valuable but a house is made of sticks and you can always rebuild, that home is where you live and we have each other and that's what's important."
Her husband agreed.
"That's what's keeping us strong I think, is the family, being together," Dave said. "Nobody was injured or hurt and knowing that Slave Lake is rebuilding, it's positive. Most people are on the positive side and looking forward to their new homes and moving back to the neighbourhood and picking up where we left off."
With a report from CTV Edmonton's Bill Fortier