The day Slave Lake burned: Former fire chief reflects on the lessons learned
'Life had changed forever and that was the moment that I knew'
This story is part of the World on Fire series, a five-part podcast that takes us to the front lines of out-of-control wildfires in Canada, Australia and California. Recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, each episode examines what it takes to find hope in the midst of fear and destruction. Wildfires cost us our health, our homes and our communities, yet people everywhere rebuild and not just survive — but thrive.
Jamie Coutts, his legs suddenly heavy under the weight of his firefighting gear, watched his childhood neighbourhood burn.
It was on that sweltering afternoon in May 2011, as he sat slumped on the curb of 12th Street on the eastern edge of Slave Lake, Alta., when he knew the community was in danger.
A wildfire had breached city limits and was starting to devour everything in its path.
The winds were blowing from the southeast at 100 kilometres per hour. It hadn't rained for days. Within three hours of the first spark, the fire had grown to 500 hectares.
Another fire, west of Slave Lake, was moving in, threatening thousands of homes and dividing the town's firefighters.
"I don't know why I did this, but I took the time to count … there were 35 houses on fire that I could see," said Coutts, former chief of the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service.
"I was sitting there, a couple of guys were yelling at each other and I just told them, 'We're all that we have and we've got to figure this out and be a team.'
"Life had changed forever and that was the moment that I knew."
For the first time in my life, I didn't know what to do.- Jamie Coutts
Each house on fire was one Coutts was familiar with. The son of a firefighter, he grew up just down the street. He had been in each one of those houses over the years as different families passed through the northern Alberta town.
By now, the skyline was a churning mass of ash and embers. No evacuation orders had been issued but the one highway out of town was already clogged with vehicles heading south.
Coutts knew then that he and his crew were likely fighting a losing battle.
"It was just the realization that it wasn't just the 35, but there were hundreds more past that, and that it would get much worse than that," Coutts recalled in an interview with CBC podcast World on Fire.
"For the first time in my life, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. It was just the turning point."
By later that afternoon, an official evacuation was called. Within days, the fire would destroy one-third of the community — 374 properties — leaving more than 700 people homeless.
Coutts, who began training as a firefighter at 14, would go on to fight massive wildfires in and near other communities in northern Alberta.
He worked the front lines of the 2016 wildfire that devastated Fort McMurray and worked in High Level last year when a fire threatened that community.
'We're going to change things'
Now retired after 28 years with the Slave Lake department, he is working behind the scenes, as a salesperson for a firefighting-equipment and fleet-services company. He has been travelling the country as an ambassador with the Canadian Volunteer Firefighters Association.
He hopes the hard lessons he learned in Slave Lake will help protect other communities.
The force of that particular fire was underestimated, Coutts said.
"When it happened in Slave Lake, I don't think we understood the risk," he said. "It was the first time for Alberta where something that catastrophic was going to happen.
"By High Level, we knew. And the people that understood called in a big team — hundreds of people working together to say, 'We're going to change things this time.'"
As communities across the world struggle with longer, more intense wildfire seasons, firefighting strategies also need to change, Coutts said.
"Now we're dealing with these wildfires that flare up, it's plus 40 C and the wind is 120 kilometres per hour.
"Those factors didn't use to be there and those factors remove time for us, time that we used to have to get things together and to build what we needed to build, and evacuate who we needed to evacuate.
"That time has been stolen from us by weather effects that we can't control."
Coutts said four things play into potentially dangerous decisions in a crisis: ego, turf wars, time and money.
When fires strike, regional departments and all levels of government need to work together quickly to save infrastructure and human life.
"Anytime you see catastrophic disasters that change thousands, millions of people's lives, it makes you think that we could do better but there are a lot of things that get in the way of doing better."
With files from Adrienne Lamb