For Tyler Warman the wildfire devastating the city of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta is a painful reminder of the catastrophic blaze that destroyed his community five years ago.
When Warman, the mayor of Slave Lake, Alberta, and other crews from his small town arrived in Fort McMurray Tuesday to help battle the ongoing fire, he said the memories of the 2011 disaster come rushing back.
“A lot of déjà vu to be honest, just that overwhelming sense of trying to control Mother Nature. It is a tough one to do,” Warman told Global News. “The one thing I’ll never forget about Slave Lake was the explosions. You’ve got ammunition going off, you’ve got propane tanks and gas tanks and all kinds of things blowing up.
“Rolling into Fort McMurray last night it was exactly the same. That is the one that always sticks with me, the explosions.”
Five years ago a wildfire consumed more than a third of Slake Lake. It caused more than $700-milllion in damage, and at the time was the second-costliest insured disaster in Canadian history, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
The fire destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless. Although no civilians were injured a fire-fighting helicopter pilot died after crashing on Lesser Slave Lake.
As crews continue to tackle the wildfires in Fort McMurray, Warman said he and others from Slave Lake are just honoured to be helping.
“We lived this in 2011, we were successful and we rebounded from that and it was a long tough road,” he said. “But we got there because of the help of some the communities out there who came to our aid both during the fire and afterwards.”
“We are just very proud and honoured to come up here and pay some of that back.”
The fire burning in Fort McMurray have destroyed roughly 1,600 homes and buildings, leading to comparisons with the 2011 blaze.
Premier Rachel Notley said the 80,000 residents forced to flee north and south of Fort McMurray is the largest fire evacuation in the province’s history.
“In terms of fire this is our biggest fire evacuation,” she said. “This is bigger than Slave Lake.”
Warman, who is a volunteer firefighter, said painful lessons were learned in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster.
“We spent a lot of time and energy and money after the fire in 2011 to look at ways to deal with wildfire better through equipment and training with our teams and how we communicate with residents and some of the Fire Smart principles,” he said.
“There’s a lot things you can do to make things better, but that being said you can never control Mother Nature, and she is going to do what she is going to do.”
Judith Kulig, a health sciences professor at the University of Lethbridge, wrote a report in the wake of Slave Lake and said lessons learned from the tragedy included the need for better communication, pack an emergency kit and counseling available for everyone in the community.
“The biggest lesson learned for the community, for any community in preparing for disaster, is to have connections and know people,” she said. “And not only have a familiarity with a disaster plan in your area and have an emergency bag packed, but the stronger the community is beforehand the better they are going to do after in the recovery.”
Kulig says having cash on hand, a spare gas can, and knowing your medical prescriptions are essential to emergency planning.
During the recovery process following a devastating fire counseling needs to be provided for everyone affected by the fire, including first responders and volunteers.
“Afterwards it’s really important that counselling and activities and anything that can help people get over the tragedy are provided for all members of the community,” Kulig said. “We also tend to forget that firefighters whether they be volunteer or paid and first responders such as police need follow up assistance and help.”
She advises anyone looking to help the city of Fort McMurray to give money to the Canada Red Cross rather than sending clothes or other items.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his thoughts are with Albertans and the federal government is mobilizing Canadian Forces aircraft to help.
“While the full extent of the damage isn’t yet known, we certainly do know that for those who have been affected this fire is absolutely devastating. It’s a loss on a scale that is hard for many of us to imagine,” Trudeau said in Ottawa Wednesday afternoon.
*With files from Global Edmonton