Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Dr. Karina Pillay, former mayor of Slave Lake, Alta., is shown at her medical clinic in Calgary on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

10 years later: Former Slave Lake mayor remembers wildfire that burned through town

Alberta announced in 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire

Karina Pillay remembers everything about the wildfire. She remembers the chaos the day it hit. The fireballs falling around the town’s government building. The traffic gridlock as flames blocked the roads.

“It was such a life-changing experience,” the former Slave Lake mayor said in an interview from Calgary, where she now works as a family doctor.

“You just can’t forget those vivid images in your head.”

Pillay was in her third term as mayor when the wildfire burned about one-third of the northern Alberta town 10 years ago this month.

Nearly 400 homes and businesses, including an apartment complex, were reduced to ash and rubble when fierce winds whipped the fire through town with little warning.

“Things changed so quickly,” recalled Pillay, who noted she was meeting with the fire chief and other council members at the newly built government building to talk about the fire when it hit town.

“Someone said, ‘Your roof is on fire.’”

As everyone fled the building, fireballs were falling from the sky, Pillay said.

Most residents had just minutes to flee. Communications went down and traffic became gridlocked.

“Lots of things started to fail for us,” said Pillay. “Thankfully we were able to get everyone out.”

No one from town was injured other than scrapes and minor burns, but 2,000 people were left homeless. The government building, including the library, was lost.

Damages were pegged at $700 million — one of the country’s costliest disasters.

Pillay, who had lived in Slave Lake since she was a baby, spent the next two years working around the clock along with many others to start rebuilding the community.

“We didn’t sleep much,” she said with a laugh. “Long hours, lots of meetings. It was pretty intense. Pretty intense at first. I don’t think I had a break in a year.

“Our council was unbelievable. Half my council lost their homes, and they were still there in meetings, on the night they lost their homes, right from the get-go.”

About two months after the fire, Prince William and his wife Kate, who were on a cross-Canada tour, made an impromptu visit to show their support.

“They were so genuine and caring and personable,” said Pillay, who took them on a tour of the damage.

The Alberta government announced in November 2011 that an unknown arsonist had recklessly or deliberately ignited the forest fire. No one was ever charged.

Pillay left to attend medical school a few months before Alberta’s 2013 municipal elections.

“We had all the good planning in place and I didn’t want to have any regrets in life,” she said. “In the back of my mind, medicine has always been something that fascinated me.

“I studied for that entrance exam when I was mayor in the summer.”

She did her medical school training as her hometown continued to rebuild.

Tyler Warman, who was a town councillor and volunteer firefighter in 2011, was elected as the next mayor and still holds that position.

“It’s the whole mentality of let’s roll up our sleeves and get it done,” he said.

He said recovery was in good shape two years after the fire, but it took several more years before everything started to change.

“Recovery is a long-distance game and it takes a lot out of you.”

Warman said he couldn’t be more proud of how the community handled the crisis.

“Within a couple of years, literally 80 per cent of the homes were rebuilt,” he said. “We waited a couple years to let everyone do the construction … then we had $30 million of road rehab and sidewalk rehab.

“Around year six, we looked back and said we’re checking all the boxes here.”

Warman said there are still signs of the fire — smaller trees, newer buildings — but the town has mostly rebounded.

There were some long-term effects. Researchers have looked at everything from how children responded to the fire to ways to better prepare towns near forests to deal with fire safety.

Slave Lake’s population has dropped slightly since the fire, but Warman said most residents came back — at least until some left years later during an economic downturn in the oil and gas industry.

“You lose some great people along the way.”

Pillay, who’s now on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, said she’s in touch with her friends who live in Slave Lake and they often reminisce about the community’s resilience.

“What we did was just incredible,” she said, “to get our citizens back into that community and, then after, the hard work we did.”

She hasn’t been back to see the completion of projects, but said she’ll always have fond memories — and a constant reminder — of her time as Slave Lake’s mayor.

“Council, as my parting gift, gave me an engraved stethoscope. It has my name on it,” said Pillay.

“I still use it … so I have a piece of Slave Lake with me all the time.”

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press


Just Posted

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Alberta reports 100 new cases of COVID-19

The Central zone sits at 218 active cases

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Red Deer drops to 71 active cases of COVID-19

Province adds 127 new cases of the virus

Police officers and their dogs undergo training at the RCMP Police Dog Services training centre in Innisfail, Alta., on Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Mounties say they are searching for an armed and dangerous man near a provincial park in northern Alberta who is believed to have shot and killed a service dog during a police chase. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
RCMP search for armed man in northern Alberta after police dog shot and killed

Cpl. Deanna Fontaine says a police service dog named Jago was shot during the pursuit

Alberta now has 2,336 active cases of COVID-19, with 237 people in hospital, including 58 in intensive care. (Black Press file photo)
Red Deer down to 73 active cases of COVID-19, lowest since early November

The Central zone has 253 active cases of the virus

(Black Press File Photo)
Sylvan Lake RCMP charge youth with weapons offences

The public helped to identify the individual involved in an incident at the pier earlier this month

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

Orange shirts, shoes, flowers and messages are displayed on the steps outside the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 following a ceremony hosted by the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations in honour of the 215 residential school children whose remains have been discovered buried near the facility in Kamloops, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Alberta city cancels Canada Day fireworks at site of former residential school

City of St. Albert says that the are where the display was planned, is the site of the former Youville Residential School

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York on Nov. 4, 2019. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Canadians who got AstraZeneca shot can now see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

B.C. mayor David Screech who received his second AstraZeneca dose last week can now attend the show

Most Read