Cal Dueck

Cal Dueck

Rossland tree-planting crew surrounded by Slave Lake fires

Seven Rosslanders were caught with "fire on three sides of us" in the Sunday burn that swept through Slave Lake, Alta., said Jenny Dueck.

  • May. 18, 2011 8:00 p.m.

*** More of Jenny Dueck’s photos can be seen at ***

Seven Rosslanders were caught with “fire on three sides of us” in the Sunday burn that swept through Slave Lake, Alta., said Jenny Dueck.

Jenny is the daughter of Cal Dueck, who owns Rossland-based Northern Reforestation, a tree planting company that was just setting up for its annual plant near Slave Lake.

Seventeen people working the early season for Northern watched from “the compound” in the industrial north end of Slave Lake as the inferno advanced, fanned by heavy winds gusting to 89 km/h, grounding the water bombers. A wall of smoke approached the town from two fires, one southeast and one southwest, that swept up, around, and between them and the lake to the north, burning homes and businesses and closing highways as it burned around to the east side of town.

Because both city hall and the radio station had burned down, the tree planters were unaware that the town was under an evacuation order. The fact that the town was burning less than a kilometre away was hidden from them by thick smoke and the brief die-down of fires in their immediate vicinity.

But then the flames reared up again.

As the hem pulled in tighter on all sides, Jenny recalled her father saying, “At this point I would leave — if any of the roads were open.”

“The first point when I was seriously worried,” Jenny said, was a few minutes later when, about 75 metres away, “the trees on the other side of the highway went up in flames.”

“We moved the vehicles away from the compound, against the fences, in case the fuel tanks started exploding,” Jenny recalled.

“I could feel the heat on my face,” Cal said.

Smoke too thick to breathe forced the planters inside but, Jenny said, “even inside the building we could feel the movement.”

As the flames leapt the highway and engulfed a subdivision, the houses didn’t stand a chance. The tree planters watched from behind windows as the fire approached a nearby home and, in an instant, it exploded.

“There was no waiting, no time to say, oh, it’s licking at that corner now,” Cal said. “It was house, house, holy [expletive], fire!”

“The house burned to the ground as the brush burned around it,” Jenny said. “So out of control, no one even attempted to fight this fire.”

This was when “point number two of concern” occurred to Jenny. “We realized that if the compound did catch fire, there would be no firefighters coming.”

But the crew stayed put, still unaware of the evacuation order.

“All the communication lines were down except my dad’s cell phone,” Jenny said. “At around 10:30, my mum [Sarah Flood, who was wfatching the news in Rossland,] called us and told us about the evacuation order.”

Cal sent two people down to see police officers who were barricading the highway to the north. One officer told them they were supposed to have left hours before and didn’t want to let them return to the compound. The planters explained that 15 other staff were there as well, so two officers returned with them to “make sure we all left,” Jenny said.

“We drove past the burning buildings and were directed down highway 88 East, and from there to Athabasca,” she said.

Arriving at 3 a.m., the weary evacuees slept in their vehicles.

The next day, the planting staff talked with others who had left it all behind.

“A lot of people said they hadn’t had any warning,” Jenny recalled, “and had to leave their homes too quickly to save anything. People weren’t sure if their houses were still there.”

“One lady said she’d worked a night shift on Saturday, so was napping in her home when the fires started burning up her street,” Jenny said. “Her 15-year-old-son woke her up and said, ‘Mom, I think we have to go.’ She looked out her window and all of the houses on the other side of the street were on fire. She had time to grab her purse and her son, and that was it.”

Although the fires burned most of the surrounding brush and forest, the planter’s compound is still standing.

“In the industrial part of town there is a lot more space between buildings, and lots of gravel lots, so it would be much harder for the fire to spread,” Jenny speculated.

Nobody’s sure how long the Northern Reforestation crew will have to wait until they can get back into town and get back to work, but for now most of them are waiting at their homes.

“It sounds like the area we were supposed to set up camp and plant in has burned, so it might be a while before the forest service will let us back in there, too.”

When they do go back, Jenny thinks “it’s going to be weird.”

“I have known Slave Lake since I was a pretty young kid, and now a huge part of it is gone — the library, the police station, the homes. I just hope everyone comes back. It’s sort of home away from home.”