Lost and found in the fire

May 31, 2011
Nicola Ramsey

Slave Lake will rise again

It is three days after the fire.

My husband, Len, and I are in a café. Len’s cellphone rings for the third time since we sat down. “Mr. Ramsey, do I have enough credits to graduate?” someone asks. “Who is this? Jason? Jason, I don’t have Internet access right now but if you give me a call tomorrow, I’ll be at the ADLC [Alberta Distance Learning Centre] office in Edmonton and I’ll help you out.” He hangs up his phone. “Do I know a Jason?” he asks of no one in particular. “Well, there’s Jason in Grade 12,” my son says. “Oh yeah, he was in my English class last ­semester.”

My husband has been taking calls, texts and e-mails nonstop. His principal calls repeatedly. The first call came from the son of a teacher friend. He wondered what he needed to do to ensure that he graduated. “I hate to ask this, Aaron, but do you know if your house is all right?” As it turns out, Aaron’s house is not all right. It was on fire when he and his family escaped. More stories surface as students call or stop by—stories about people racing out of town, leaving everything behind, their lawns ablaze and their decks exploding as burning trees fell on their vehicles. Trucks, boats, trailers and countless treasures left behind. Children staying with cousins, grandparents or friends, or staying in hotels, evacuation centres or campsites. People unsure of where to go and for how long. And no one knows what they’ll go home to. Len and I are certain our house is standing, but somehow that doesn’t seem fair when so many others have lost everything.

We set up triage in the ADLC Edmonton office—my school. No fewer than 21 Grade 12 students and many parents show up the first day. The first to arrive are a mom and her twins, who were evacuated from their acreage. They don’t know if their home is gone. They heard from eyewitnesses that the house was still standing but covered in a thick layer of red fire retardant foam.

Arriving next are a mother and her two children from Parkdale, an area of town where every house was flattened. What do I say to people who have lost all their earthly goods? And how is it that just three days after a terrifying experience, three days after they’ve lost so much, they have the time and energy to think about their children’s education?

Several of the students who arrive are taking Chemistry 30. The ADLC chemistry teacher quizzes the students to determine what they’ve covered. It’s surreal for a total stranger to grill them about their knowledge of chemistry when their town has just burned down. The kids hesitate, but as the teacher moves into their comfort zone, the students respond. Science—that’s something they know. When so many other questions in their lives remain unanswered, here is something they can rely upon. Something tangible that won’t make the students cry or feel sad. The chemistry teacher even gets a few laughs, and before long you can feel a sense of community being restored.

Not all the calls are positive, however. Some mothers are furious that we’re suggesting that their children think about school when their homes have been destroyed. But most parents are grateful. The opportunity for their children to finish the school year gives them something to focus on. For the high school students, completing their course work will allow them to think about the future they’re working toward, a future that will unfold whether or not they have a house. For the parents of younger children, the resources made available to them will give them something to do over the next uncertain days and weeks.

When everyone left town on May 15, no one knew what damage the fire would wreak. We did not know whose homes would be destroyed. [As of this writing] we remain uncertain, unable to return home to find what we have lost. Yet, what we’ve found is the spirit of our community. Just as our town is not just a bunch of houses, our schools are not just buildings—they are communities of people with drive and determination and ingenuity who will work together to rebuild. And that’s a fire you can’t put out.

Author’s note: More than a dozen teachers and support staff lost their homes in the Slave Lake and area fires.

Nicola Ramsey teaches high school social studies with Alberta Distance Learning Centre. Len Ramsey is a high school guidance counsellor with Roland Michener Secondary School—still standing—in Slave Lake.