Wildfires are certainly not uncommon in northern Alberta. In the spring of 2011 there were 146 recorded in the Lesser Slave River area alone. In most cases, these fires are kept at bay by Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD). In this instance, however, winds reaching 100km/h made suppression next to impossible.
Flames spread incredibly quickly and bypassed barriers put in their way by fire crews. Glowing embers were carried up to fifteen kilometers. Water bombers and helicopters were eventually grounded due to extreme winds and excessive chop in the nearby lake. All pre-existing man-made checks and balances were thwarted by the elements. In the words of Calgary Fire Services Public Information Officer Brian McAsey: "If our 1400 men and women were lined up on that road, if you told us it was coming, and if we had every apparatus ready to go, we could not have stopped that fire. It was unprecedented. It was unstoppable."
"It was incredibly windy that day. My husband and I were doing yard work when we saw the first water bomber fly over."
The toll of this catastrophe continues to be calculated. But despite one of the largest displacements of residents in Alberta's history, and despite the tragic loss of homes and businesses, common accounts from those on the ground are immense pride in the people of Lesser Slave River, and sheer amazement that not a single life was lost to the flames.
Facts & Figures
01 On May 14, 2011, two separate fires burned within the MD. A third fire would begin the next day.
02 May 15, 100 kilometer-per-hour winds stirred up the fires, threatening lives and infrastructure.
03 The Lesser Slave wildfires caused one of the largest displacements of residents in Alberta's history.
04 At the peak of the disaster there were more than 1,500 additional emergency workers in the area.
05 A variety of local and interprovincial emergency personnel, as well as MD staff, Councillors and residents, helped combat the disaster.
06 Alberta had not seen devastation like this since the fire of 1919 that displaced 300 in Lac La Biche.
07 The total economic impact of the Lesser Slave River wildfires could exceed $1 billion.
08 Collectively, the Lesser Slave wildfires consumed almost 22 thousand hectares.
09 In total, almost 750 individuals and families in the area lost their homes.
10 The crisis was designated a level four emergency; the highest possible designation that involves a sustained government-wide response.
Voices from the Front Line