Researchers Confirm Slave Lake Shows Community Strength as Wildfire Recovery Process Continues
Researchers Confirm Slave Lake Shows Community Strength as Wildfire Recovery Process Continues

September 20, 2012

A year-long study of people affected by the 2011 Slave Lake, Alberta, Wildfire indicates that as the community continues to recover, particular attention must be paid to families and children.

Dr. Judith Kulig, a University of Lethbridge Health Sciences researcher and wildfire recovery expert, was on the ground in Slave Lake a month after the disaster.

Along with post-doctoral research associate Dr. Anna Pujadas Botey and colleagues from the University of Lethbridge, Queens, Concordia and Laurentian Universities, Kulig spent the past year surveying families, children, health care professionals, emergency responders, local government officials and educators to get a sense of how the community was, and is, handling the aftermath of the fire.

The complete surveys can be downloaded using links at the end of this media release.

The May, 2011 wildfires affected a large area around Slave Lake and destroyed approximately one third of the town, including homes, the community’s library, government offices, businesses and much more. 740 families lost their homes.

The fires resulted in an evacuation of 10,000+ area residents for 12 days, required the combined efforts of some 1,700 emergency responders, and caused an estimated $1 billion of damage.

“This will be no surprise, but we found that parents who were, quite frankly, emotionally drained and stretched to their limits by this event were having trouble supporting their kids – who were equally affected,” Kulig said.

“In addition to the displacement caused by the fire, schools were closed, living arrangements were different, and the families were making big decisions: do they rebuild? Do they leave? If their home is gone, where do they live? Even if they had not lost their home, they still had to make sense of what happened.”

The researchers also found that there were several supports in place to assist families and children with their emotional and health-related recoveries, which kicked in very soon after the fire, and are ongoing – a positive step that Kulig said was critical to help the community move forward.

“We noted that several agencies increased their service levels, brought in additional people and launched programs to help people cope. These were excellent responses and we suggest that those programs continue, since the emotional recovery time from a disaster like this can take several years.”

Kulig said that, as researchers moved through the community engaging people, they found ample evidence that Slave Lake and area exhibited a solid level of community cohesion and resilience, which is critical to the rebuilding process.

“Despite the huge amount of upheaval, many people initially told us that they were brought closer together as a family because of the fire, and the research bears this out. 92 per cent of the respondents indicated that they were as close, or closer, because of the disaster. As well, we measured family cohesion, which measures a family’s ability to work together or relate well to each other, and 89 per cent of respondents said they were as -- or more – cohesive than before the fire.”

Kulig cautioned, however, that the actual transition back to what some families expressed as ‘normal’ would not be without challenges. “We identified six key areas people experienced, and need to be mindful of even now, to ensure they are coping constructively with the disaster’s aftermath.”

Kulig said people developed different life goals and priorities, they experienced new routines and attitudes among community members. As well, their interactions with their own family members, friends and neighbours and others in the community changed.

“We also noted that people developed new values and perceptions of the important things in their lives. We heard people say a number of times, ‘…it’s just stuff, it can be replaced, but my family can’t…’. This is a significant indicator that there is strength and resolve in the community to move forward.”

A backgrounder is attached, below, which details the six areas in greater detail.

Over the past 15 years, Kulig and her colleagues have studied four communities that have experienced wildfires, and have developed general recommendations for recovery and resources for people in the community to better understand how they can be affected by wildfires.

Slave Lake was identified as a community with a significant amount of resiliency, and Kulig said the changes identified should be monitored on a longer-term basis to help the community in the future.

A list of key items for decision-makers is attached, below.

“Overall, the respondents perceived the community to be friendly, welcoming, and supportive. Kulig said. “The stakeholder interviews indicated a dedication to rebuild and move forward. The interviews revealed that the Slave Lake town and area is considered resilient, and that it is a place that will successfully move forward by addressing the challenges they have faced because of the wildfires.”

Acknowledgements and Funding:

The research team offers their heartfelt thanks to the community members and elected officials of the Town of Slave Lake, the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River No. 124, and the Sawridge First Nation for their participation in this study.

The supporting agencies, local community advisory board members (Kevin Arnell, Lucille Cook, Michelle Morrison, Wil Porat), research advisory board members (Andrew Coghlan, Bonita MacFarlane, Joyce Mellott, Randy Ross), the community-based research assistant (Sherri Rempel) and the additional research assistants (Elisabeth Clark, Stephanie Smolenski, HaiYan Fan) all contributed to the final product.

The funding for the research was provided by the Alberta Centre for Child, Family and Community Research, the Alberta Government and the Institute of Catastrophic Loss Reduction.

Additional funding was provided through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Health Professional Student Awards for Stephanie Smolenski and Elisabeth Clark.

Additional Information and Resources

Information about other communities affected by large-scale wildfires can be found at http://www.ruralwildfire.ca. The website houses research results from wildfires in northern Saskatchewan, the BC interior and the Crowsnest Pass area of southwestern Alberta.

To contact the researchers by e-mail, please send a message to wildfire@uleth.ca A toll-free telephone number is also available: 1-877-382-7119.

SURVEYS

1. SLAVE LAKE -- LESSONS LEARNED

2. SLAVE LAKE -- SCHOOL SURVEY

3. SLAVE LAKE -- COMMUNITY AND FAMILY SURVEY

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Contacts:

Dr. Judith Kulig, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Lethbridge

Cell (403) 894-4676
Toll free 1-877-382-7119
e-mail: wildfire@uleth.ca

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Municipal District of Lesser Slave Lake #124:
Allan Winarksi, Municipal Manager
Cell: (780) 805-1142
Office (780) 849-4888
Toll free 1-866-449-4888
e-mail: allan.winarski@md124.ca
Website: http://www.md124.ca/

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Town of Slave Lake Contact:
John Sparks, Communications Lead, Recovery Operations
Cell (403) 660-8885
e-mail: jsparks@shaw.ca

Town Office (780) 849-8000 / 1-800-661-2594
e-mail: town@slavelake.ca
Website: http://www.slavelake.ca

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BACKGROUND -- Family Changes of note

Families in the Slave Lake area experienced many changes following the fires. Families lived in temporary housing including campgrounds and hotels; schools were cancelled for the remainder of the school year and some of the mothers did not continue working in order to address all of the issues post-wildfire.

According to the interviews the coping process of families is characterized by six main changes:

1. Different life goals and priorities

Families had the new goal of recovery, which they expressed as ‘going back to normal life.’ This goal represented a constant worry added to their daily life, and was slowly achieved by following a step-by-step process that involved a sequence of particular actions such as getting children back to school, having temporary housing, dealing with insurance companies, and rebuilding their houses.

2. New routines

Obvious changes in the community, the fact that some families were relocated after the fires, and a new prioritization order that parents imposed to recover (i.e., deciding to rebuilding, dealing with the insurance company, dealing with builders) resulted in many changes in family routines. Children were particularly affected by these changes. Parents were extremely busy and did not have the time and energy to deal with the specific needs of children.

3. Changes in attitudes

Parents and children experienced different changes. There was a group of parents highly stressed and concerned about the future of their families, and another group of parents that had a strong feeling of guilt, shame, and sadness after surviving the fires without major material loses. In contrast, children in general were reported as being unaffected.

4. Changes in interactions within families

Some families felt a stronger emotional bonding among family members and shared a sense of internal strengths as a family. Other families experienced the need to have family members physically close fearing an emergency. Still other families were emotionally further apart and had difficulties interacting among family members. Difficulties may result in irritability, mental health issues, marriage breakups, domestic violence, and substance abuse.

5. Changes in interactions with the community

Families experienced stronger relationships with their close social networks. They engaged in deeper conversations, got together more often, and felt more involved in each other’s life. However, families also found their interactions with other people in the community more difficult. Communication was problematic and conversations sometimes led to ill-tempered reactions.

6. New values and perceptions

Families had a different perception of what the important things are in life. Most had a greater appreciation of their families and attributed a lower value to material possessions. Some families also put a higher weight in human relationships and developed a stronger sense of solidarity with less fortunate people in the community.

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BACKGROUND -- Key Recommendations for Decision Makers

Disaster Preparedness

- Maintain an updated community disaster plan that follows disaster planning protocols.

After the Disaster

- Coordinate recovery efforts from local and provincial governments and the non-governmental sector to prevent duplication of efforts.

- Develop mechanisms to ensure that there are cross-ministry opportunities for collaboration and decision-making regarding the response to the fire.

- Set limits on the material donations that are provided to the community.

- Provide additional mental health services for all rural community members that experience wild-fires and psychological support for local leaders and stakeholders who are dealing with the wildfires for a full year following the fire.

Collect economic, social and health data in communities that experience wildfires for five years after the wildfire and then every 10 years for three more decades.

Fostering Healthy Families and Children

- Collect psychological data including information about family functioning and general coping processes from children and families every two years for a maximum of six years after the wildfire to assess for individual and family functioning.

- Provide additional services and resources for designated professionals (i.e., teachers, counsellors) to assist them in supporting families and children affected by the wildfire.

- Offer free sessions that address issues such as family decision making and financial planning, as well as sessions about the general recovery process from a wildfire.

- Encourage parents to spend additional time with their children to provide factual information about the disaster and promote conversations about their feelings.

Fostering Community Resiliency

- Provide opportunities for celebrations to acknowledge the efforts of firefighters, local authorities, volunteers, and all community residents after the disaster.

- Provide opportunities for children and families to engage with, and support, one another through planned activities including sport events and entertainment such as music events.

Additional Information

Information about other communities affected by large-scale wildfires can be found at http://www.ruralwildfire.ca.

The website houses research results from wildfires in northern Saskatchewan, the BC interior and the Crowsnest Pass area of southwestern Alberta.


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Communications and PR Officer (403) 382-7173

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