Jennifer was the Public Works Secretary for the MD during the May 2011 wildfires.
It was a Saturday morning, June 14th, and our friend Joe called and asked if we wanted to go for a round of golf. Dale and I accepted as we thought it was going to be a nice sunny day. As we were getting ready to leave the golf course Liz commented that it was really windy and that she hoped there were no forest fires that had started the night before, as there were some really bad thunder storms. I agreed with her, said good bye and we left the golf course. On the way into town I had asked Dale if we could stop at Walmart as there were some items I needed to pick up. We did our shopping, came out and put the groceries in the vehicle, as we were sitting there Dale said, “Is that smoke coming from Mitsue area?” I looked up and saw this huge cloud of smoke coming from the direction of Dale’s parents place. Dale said, “Get in!”
We were on our way out to Lyle and Marian’s place on West Mitsue Road when the fire chief, Jamie Coutts, stopped us by banging on the hood of my jeep, “Turn this vehicle around and get out now!” he screamed. Dale replied, “My parents are in there.” Jamie said, “Get them out and leave everything!” As we were driving into the driveway you could see this cloud of smoke, it was so close. I didn’t think we had enough time to get Dale’s parents out. As we got of the vehicle, Lyle and Marian were coming out of their place. We told them to leave everything and to get out now! I packed the grandkids and dog into my jeep. Dale had run down to his uncle’s place to get him out before the fire came any closer. Dale drove one of his uncle’s cars out, while I drove my jeep. We were all in vehicles and I thought the worse was over; we would be safe the fire fighters were here. I could hear the sirens coming. I pulled out of their driveway and looked down the oil field road to make sure there were no vehicles. I don’t think I will ever forget what I saw. The flames were so high, two times taller than the tallest tree standing there. I have never been this close to a forest fire before, and I just sat there. The kids in the back started to cry, snapped me out of it. I turned around and told them everything was going to be okay but that they needed to listen to me. I told them we were going to the MD office and I would get a hold of their dad. At that very moment a police car drove by with his lights on and the kid’s dad, Aaron, inside. I stopped and talked to Aaron and I told him I was going to the MD office. Aaron would arrange for someone to pick the kids up, as I knew I would have to work.
I pulled into the MD office and the kids were still crying. They knew their father had gone back to where the fire was burning. I told them that their dad was going to be okay and that they didn’t need to worry as Dale was with him and they knew what they were doing. I was calling Dale to make sure that his parents were out and everyone was safe, still no answer. Most of the office staff was already at the office, getting maps out, calling people in the Poplar Lane area to try and evacuate them. Allan asked if I could take notes as to what was going on, “Take everything down”, he said. I had to give my head a shake; I was still back on West Mitsue road, hoping everyone had made it out okay. Paul Mulholland walked in, ahhhh, sigh of relief. Maybe he could tell me if Dale and his family were safe. I started to cry and Annette took over writing notes. I had to go and see for myself, was my family okay. As I was driving east on Highway #2 all I could think of was what if, what if. The flames kept popping back into my head and how high they were, I couldn’t get over the size of them. I had to think positive, my family was okay and I was going to be okay. I pulled into the jug handle, as the West Mitsue road was blocked by emergency workers, there was Dale and Aaron, sigh of relief. Now where were Lyle and Marian? As Dale walked towards me, I started to cry. He said, “Don’t worry; everything is going to be okay. Mom and dad got out but they are on the other side of the fire,” another sigh of relief. Highway #2 heading east is shut down.
I don’t know how much time had passed, but we got word that Lyle and Marian were okay from one of the emergency workers. I told Dale that I would be heading back to the office as I knew they would need me. Dale was heading home as we had a full house; family was staying with us and beds needed to be made, etc. As I was pulling into the MD office again, I said to myself, “You can do this.” I honestly don’t know what I did for the first couple of hours. I did what had to be done. Residents in the Poplar Lane, Mitsue and Southshore area were called, office was packed up and the staff did what needed to be done. I don’t know how everyone knew what to do, but we did, and got it done. It was almost like we were on automatic pilot. It was 11:30 p.m. and Allan had decided that there should be shifts through the night. I would be back on tomorrow morning at 10:30 a.m. I went home and tried to sleep. I woke up the next morning at 8:00 a.m. exhausted. The last time I had looked at the clock was 3:30 a.m.; I figure I fell asleep around 4 a.m.
I decided to head into the office to see if I could help or if I needed to get anything for our workers. Walked into the office and Annette was sitting at the desk she said, “Good morning,” in a chipper voice, as she normally does. Another sigh of relief, there was a sign of normalcy in my life. Who knew something so small could mean so much. I sat down and had a quick chit chat with Annette to get caught up on things and to find out if there was anything new. Nothing had changed from the night before, winds were expected to pick up again later on and both fires were still burning. George came in and told me to go home as I wasn’t needed but I would be later on in the day as the Southshore fire was expected to hit sometime this afternoon.
First things first, call family and friends in the Southshore area and get them into our place, check. Next, help family and friends, secure items in storage, check. Ring, it was shortly after one Sunday afternoon when I got a call from Annette, “You need to come in, we have to start calling the Southshore residents,” she stated. I was just finishing up helping Claude secure items in storage. “I’ll be right in,” I replied. I kissed Dale good-bye and said, “I love you,” with tears in my eyes. He said, “Don’t worry we will get through this, stiff upper lip.” I put on my brave face on and went work, I was needed.
The office staff started calling residents in the Southshore area stating that they need to evacuate now and check in at the college. If they were going to leave the Slave Lake area make sure to check in at the college, as this was the central meeting place and we need to know you got out safe. Just as we finished calling everyone in the Southshore area the office was informed that the fire in the Poplar Lane area had swirled around and is now heading down the Muskeg Road, need to evacuate them, check. The fire that hit the Southshore area closed down Highway #2 heading west, the only highway open was Highway #88 to Wabasca. With the winds changing, the fire that was burning in the Poplar Lane area is now threatening the MD office; evacuate now, everyone head for the town office (EOC). As we are leaving another fire is breaking out in the Marten Beach area off Highway #88 and is threatening our residents. Need to evacuate Marten Beach residents as soon as we get to the EOC in town.
Driving into town was hard, up until now I was safe at work. I was familiar with the people at work, my surroundings and what was expected of me. It was almost like that was what kept me going. I just kept moving forward remembering that I just have to fix the next problem in front of me. Had I begun to allow myself to think about what was really going on, I could not have kept moving forward. Those thoughts would have shut me down and stopped me in my tracks. Instead, I kept problem solving. And, I kept thinking, “I can do this. I just have to finish this problem. What I’m doing is important and must be done.”
Pulled into the town office parking lot, you could still see the blue sky. Annette pulled up beside me and we walked into the Town office together, phew, I was not alone. Annette and I walked into the EOC and were seated at the far left hand side. Annette was getting ready to dial the phone; I was pulling up our systems so we could get information as to who was in the Marten Beach area. SPIN was down for maintenance, how do we get names on who is living in the Marten Beach area? “Think Jennifer, who lives in Marten Beach, ah yes, Loren Larson.” Annette was already flipping through the pages to get a number. I grabbed the phone and started to dial. “Hi, this is Jennifer calling from MD#124. You need to evacuate NOW. The MD needs you to go from house to house, knocking on doors, telling everyone to evacuate to Wabasca. Once in route, please contact the college to let them know you have gotten out safely.” “Where is the fire?” the voice on the other end stated. I replied, “You NEED to EVACUATE NOW! Please go door to door telling the other residents in the area.” The woman on the other end kept asking questions, I interrupted her and said, “I NEED TO SPEAK TO LORENE LARSON NOW!” The woman handed the phone to Lorene stating, “There is a bitch from the MD on the phone for you.” Once Lorene was on the phone I repeated what I stated before, evacuate now, go door to door telling the other residents. Lorene was able to provide me with a few contact name and numbers for residents in the Marten Beach area. Got off the phone with Lorene and started to contact other residents. I looked up from my post and everyone had left the EOC. What was going on, where did everyone go? Someone came into the EOC stating, “There are lit embers falling into the town parking lot. I got up walked over to the front door of the Town office and looked out. I could barely see my jeep and it wasn’t even a half a block away. Saw the long line of traffic heading out of town and I started to panic, till now things were okay, there was no threat to the town or me. The highways were closed, how do we get out and where do we go, if we can get out? How is my family doing? How are they coping? These were all questions running through my mind. I had to call Dale, haven’t spoken to him since after lunch. After speaking with Dale, we decided that I needed to get home to take care of my family now. Spoke with Judy briefly and she told me to go to the Airport or Walmart parking lot.
No one could ever know what it was like walking out of the Town office, it was nothing like I expected. “Hold on,” I heard Annette say, “I’ll walk out with you.” I could barely breathe in the air; it was so thick and full of ash. The highways are closed out of Slave Lake, I’m trapped, and all I could think of was will we make it out alive? The drive home was the worst I will ever experience, I could barely see, feeling trapped and I couldn’t get through the long line of bumper to bumper traffic on Main Street. “Please let me through so I can get home to my family,” I said as I was crying. I knew no one could hear me. I slowly edged my jeep up and forced my way through.
I pulled into the driveway and saw Claude and Dale packing things like our camping gear into the truck. There were lit embers falling on our driveway, which added to my fears. I thought this might be my only change to talk to my mom, I need to call her. It was my brother’s birthday and they were having a get together. Holly answered the phone, “Hi Jenn,” in a chipper voice. “Hi Holly, I need to talk to mom right now,” I said in a firm voice. “What’s wrong Jenn?” Holly stated with concern. “I need to talk to mom right now Holly!” I said choking back tears. Holly ran upstairs and gave the phone to mom. I didn’t give my mom a chance to talk, “Mom, I don’t have long to talk right now, I just wanted to call to tell you that I love you. Please tell everyone that I love them. The fires are burning out of control and all the highways out of Slave Lake are shut down. I don’t know if I will get out of here alive. I love you, I have to go now,” and I hung up. I called Thomas and told him basically the same thing, he replied, “Get to the water!” As I replied I tried not to cry, “I will if I can Thomas, I have to go now, I love you.” “Love you too sis,” he replied. I knew this was hard for my brother to say as he is trained not to show his feelings, ex military man.
I whipped away the tears and got out of my jeep. Dale instructed me that there were things that need to be packed in my jeep. Auto pilot again, I ran inside to get my things and to see if there was anything important that I was forgetting. Spoke with Dale briefly asking him what he had packed. Dale was wonderful, he didn’t forget a thing, and even my diabetic supplies were packed. I didn’t have to worry about home because he was handling it all. That gave me a bit of a boost. Just being with Dale made me feel better, he is an avid outdoorsman and I knew he was very resourceful. Claude, Dale and I decided to meet at the Husky parking lot.
Sitting at the Husky parking lot we could see places and local business going up in flames. There was black ash everywhere. I felt like we were sitting ducks, I needed to get out of there. I asked Dale how he could be so calm and joke about stuff at a time like this (he and Claude were chit chatting). We decided to go to the Walmart parking lot. As we were driving out of the smoke and ash, the first thing that I saw was blue sky again. Ahhhh, sigh of relief, I’m okay for right now. We settled into the parking lot and I called mom back to let her know we were okay. Mom was asking questions like are they going to fly you guys out of there? I told her that the winds were too high and that all flights were grounded and the airport was shut down. I told mom that as soon as I could get out of Slave Lake, I would. Later on that evening we were able to leave to go to Athabasca. I can remember thanking God as I was leaving, “Thank you God for getting us out of Slave Lake alive.”
Two days later I was asked to come back and work in the MD office and to be fair warned that it wasn’t favorable working conditions. Wednesday, June 18th, as I was driving in I could see smoldering piles, red fire retardant everywhere, and all I could think of was, this doesn’t look like Slave Lake. I wasn’t prepared for some of the stories or even the sights or smells. Once again, you go into auto pilot, get things done that need to get done. You put the needs of others before your own.
Our local governments and communities are the first to respond to disasters. Local communities matter and are the places where disasters and real effects are most intimately felt. During this whole time and even afterwards you are left with a sense of wanting to know the truth and a search of understanding. Did this really happen? Did I just go through a disaster and make it out alive? I can’t ask why because I don’t know the answers.
However, I do know that in the early days, men looked to the stars and saw their heroes. It is still the same today, but I look to my fellow coworker and see a hero. They helped me realise that disaster does happen and we – all of us - have a major role to play in ensuring the safety of our people, friends and loves ones. WAY TO GO MD #124 EMPLOYEES WE ROCK!!!!