Those who lost everything

23/04/2019 Posted by admin

by Dawna Friesen

When I met Brenda and Dave Derkoch, there was something remarkably upbeat about them considering they’d just learned they’d lost their house in the Slave Lake fire. Lost everything, in fact. Except their two kids and some family photos they managed to snatch before jumping into their pickup truck to make the terrifying drive down the one road out of town.

Their kids, Cory, 12, and Carlee, 11, were crying and asking if they were going to die. Their mom says she didn’t know what to tell them. The smoke was so thick they couldn’t see the car in front of them and ash was falling everywhere.

But they made it. Now they’ve heard their house is nothing but a basement full of charred remains — and they still aren’t too upset about that. “It’s just a house,” Brenda told me. “We’ve always told the kids material things don’t matter that much. We can rebuild.”

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What she can’t get over so easily is how close to death they were, and how no one warned them the fire was closing in on the town. No one told them it was time to leave. They, like everyone else in Slave Lake, made the decision to flee when they saw smoke and flames leaping through the neighborhood. They feel let down by town officials who they trusted to keep an eye on things, and to keep them safe.

So are there lessons to learn? Should the town have been evacuated hours before, even though the threat didn’t seem imminent then? It might not have saved all that has been destroyed, but it would have avoided the sheer panic that is now an indelibly etched in the memory of each and every one of those residents who had to run for their lives. Especially the children.

I asked the mayor of Slave Lake, Karina Pillay-Kinnee, why people weren’t warned, why no one told them to get out. She said there simply wasn’t time. “Everything changed in a matter of minutes,” she said. She’d just finished a briefing with fire officials who said the town was safe, when suddenly flames were licking the town hall. She had to drop everything and run, carrying water bottles to try to put out fires from flying embers.

The charred remains of one area in Slave Lake following a massive wildfire on May 15.

Is there somewhere to lay the blame? The premier says there will be an investigation eventually. For now, families like the Derkochs have to focus on the future. They’ll be embraced by a strong sense of community and a fierce resilience that is bred in the bones of northern Albertans.

As they sifted through what is left of their worldly goods — a few boxes of family photos piled in the back of the family pickup truck — they were laughing, reminiscing, and giving each other hugs. “We’ve done a lot of crying too,” Brenda told me.

And they expect they will again when they return to confront what’s left of their neighbourhood.

Dawna is Global National’s anchor and executive editor. Follow her on Twitter: @DFriesenGlobal.

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