Slave Lake fire a year ago leaves emotional scars

Slave Lake residents like Courtney Murphy are grappling with guilt, stress and anguish as tomorrow's anniversary of the fire that devastated the Alberta community approaches.

Blame for wildfire that devastated Alberta community has 'torn pieces out of me,' resident says

News director Courtney Murphy was on the air the night of the Slave Lake fire in Alberta. (CBC)

On this spring day in Slave Lake, Alta., black smoke billows over a field that fire officials have torched on purpose.

As crews douse hotspots and a helicopter hovers overhead, Jamie Coutts, chief of the Lesser Slave Lake Fire Service, keeps a close watch. This procedure, known as a controlled or prescribed burn, is a common forest management technique.

But Coutts realizes all too well what could happen if something goes wrong.

Lesser Slave Lake fire Chief Jamie Coutts is trying to get through one fire season at a time. (CBC)

"I don't think you just go into it thinking that it'll be a couple of grass fires, right?" he said. "You go into it thinking the worst-case scenario which now, of course, is much worse than any of us ever dreamed of before."

Tomorrow marks a year since a wildfire destroyed one-third of Slave Lake. The town is rebuilding, but emotional scars are taking longer to heal.

For example, the smell of burning grass —something that may have gone unnoticed before — has sparked calls to 911, the firehall, even to Courtney Murphy, the 28-year-old news director of radio station Lake FM.

"The smoke. Residents are freaking out about it," she says, after digging her ringing cellphone out of her purse.

"Last night there were some mothers and they wanted to know the locations, they wanted to know the times they were happening because their children are suffering so much, still."

Relationships strained

Murphy still hears about people's struggles: battles with insurance companies and envious neighbours who covet the bigger, newer houses built for those who lost everything last year.

Murphy has felt her own personal anguish.

As the fire bore down on Slave Lake that Sunday evening, she was on the air, giving updates. But soon she was forced to flee, shortly before the station burned to the ground.

Murphy ran to her car and continued to file reports to Lake FM's sister station, an hour and a half away.

Despite those efforts, she has since heard from people who claim she didn't do enough.

"I had people coming up to me and telling me that I almost killed them, I almost killed their best friend," she said, her voice trembling with emotion.

"I was the reason that the town almost burnt down and that in itself has just torn pieces out of me. I didn't want to even leave the building. I had to be dragged out and 30 minutes later, our building was gone."

As the anniversary of that horrible night approaches, Murphy reflects on how her life has changed.

"During the fires, my boyfriend of eight years left me because it was too much for him to handle," she said. 

"I'm getting really tired and I've been getting sick constantly, and I think it's just because I'm run down. But again I can't take that time away because I'm worried that something might happen and I won't be here."

'My emotions aren't right anymore'

Trish Dombrosky thought she was only leaving Slave Lake for one night. The finance manager at the local Ford dealership ended up losing her home.

Trish Dombrosky says her emotional makeup has changed since the fire. (CBC)

However, the dealership survived and Dombrosky was relieved to still have a job. 

But one year later, the stress is just too much and Dombrosky is stepping down.

"I have been working at the same job for 10 years," she said. "I have had to resign 'cause I just don't feel that I am mentally able to do the job that's required of me."

Dombrosky jokes about replacing everything she lost — her looming unemployment gives her "more time to shop for furniture" — but her pain is clear.

"My emotions are not right anymore. I cry very easily, I get upset very easily, I have no patience anymore," she said.

"I get angry and that's not me. I'm normally a very happy person, and I'm the person that's out there to help other people and now I don't know how to ask for help."

On Tuesday, the town of Slave Lake will mark the anniversary with a brief ceremony.

Fire Chief Jamie Coutts is taking the day off. He plans to attend a rock concert in Edmonton that night.

"Didn't get to do what I wanted to to do last year on the 15th, so this year I'm going to try," he said.