Jeff, Lynn and Alex Bain fled Slave Lake last week when the fire encroached on their neighbourhood. They are camping in Valemount until they can return home. The couple used to live in Valemount and still have friends and family that live there.
Dark smoke that towered into the sky was the first visible sign that something was wrong.
The fire came on so quickly, people came out of buildings and tried to put out fires with water bottles.
“We were playing dominos and I just kept looking out the back door and you could just see the smoke coming,” says Lynn Bain, a Slave Lake resident who fled with her husband Jeff and daughter Alex to Valemount last week. “I just kept saying I don’t like this, I don’t like this and sure enough we went outside and it was getting darker and darker, like the smoke was getting darker and darker and that’s when we decided – that’s it, we are going.”
They had less than a day to pack up their belongings and leave their home in the southeast corner of Slave Lake, Alberta behind. Alex, 4, packed her favourite toys – Barbies and Polly Pockets. Her mom and dad told her to “be brave” the little girl says.
“Of course I had the questions from her like ‘are we coming back?’” says Jeff. “I said ‘I don’t know but we need to get out of the way for the firemen to do their job.’”
It took the family 20 minutes just to get past their block, the traffic was so dense. Then they headed west. That was a mistake. The fire had cut off the road toward High Prairie, which meant they had to go back, through the southern part of town again which was ablaze.
“We couldn’t see our house, but we could see our neighbourhood and you could see all that black smoke,” says Jeff.
“It was scary but we just went with the flow that’s all you could do,” Lynn says.
Both the highways out of Slave Lake were blocked, but finally the one towards Edmonton opened up. It took twice as much time as it usually does to get there.
Their neighbourhood was hard hit. Nearly half of it is destroyed. Luckily their house is still standing, they’ve been told by friends and seen on aerial photos. Their friends haven’t been so lucky. Jeff’s boss lost his house. So did Alex’s preschool teacher.
For many of the evacuees, the evacuation shelter is their only option. The Bains are fortunate that way. The family arrived in Valemount last week. Jeff – formerly known as “JB Sound” ran a dance disc jockey business in Valemount from about 1981 to 2001. He also worked in the mill for four years.
Both of Alex’s grandparents live in Valemount as well. In a lot of ways it was a homecoming.
“Here we have lots of support from friends and family and Alex is very comfortable,” says Lynn. “It’s like her second home.”
Lynn and Jeff say they are trying to tell Alex the truth, but just a little bit at a time.
On Sunday, the couple was busy cleaning out their camping trailer on loan to them from Jeff’s brother. This is where they’ll be living for the foreseeable future, Jeff says. They have no idea when they will be able to move back into their home.
Jeff says he might go back to his oil and gas job and live in camp, but it’s unclear when the family will be able to reunite in Slave Lake. Most of the town’s infrastructure is intact, but the water supply is still an issue.
The couple laughed when they thought back at when they first moved to Slave Lake 10 years ago. Jeff went up alone for work and there was an evacuation notice due to a fire in the same general area as the one this month. He called Lynn, who was still living in Valemount.
“What do you want me to save?” he asked her.
The evacuees have received help not only from the government, but also from banks and phone companies that have postponed payments, or given Slave Lake customers free calling for a month.
But Jeff says the town should review its protocol for issuing evacuation orders, since many people had little time to get out before the fire reached town. He says this is important for places like Valemount, which could also come under threat of forest fire.
“They need to make sure they have a good trigger for their emergency plan that’s a little quicker than it was in Slave Lake,” he says.