From Slave Lake to Fort McMurray: Wildfire survivors offer advice

There are a lot of things the people of Slave Lake, Alta., wish they'd known five years ago when a wildfire tore through through their community and forced them from their homes. Now they're hoping the people of Fort McMurray can learn from their experience.

'We know exactly what they are going through,' Slave Lake resident says

Five years after a wildfire devastated their town, the people of Slave Lake have rebuilt their lives. Now they're sharing the lessons they learned with the thousands of Albertans who have been forced to flee their homes over the last week. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

There are a lot of things the people of Slave Lake, Alta., wish they'd known five years ago when a wildfire tore through their community and uprooted them from their homes. Now they're hoping the people of Fort McMurray and other evacuated communities can learn from their experience.

​"It was the worst time of my life and now knowing that hundreds and hundreds of other people are going through it is gut-wrenching," said Jane Zimmer, a 50-year-old teacher who was forced to flee Slave Lake with her husband and three children in 2011. 

"Anything we can do to give advice and anything we can do to be a support group — we didn't have that."

​Zimmer is one of thousands of members of a Facebook group created by Slave Lake resident Calvin Beauchamp to connect 2011 wildfire survivors with the current evacuees to answer questions, give advice or offer support.

"Our experiences in Slave Lake were first-hand and I wanted the people of Fort McMurray and other wildfire-evacuated communities to have access to the information from us here," Beauchamp said. "We wanted to provide moral support and comfort to them, knowing that they are not alone and that we know exactly what they are going through." 

CBC News reached out to members of the group to find out what lessons they have to impart to the more than 80,000 evacuees. Here's what they had to say. 

Keep detailed records 

Keeping records and receipts might be the last thing on your mind after fleeing a raging wildfire, but it will save you a lot of headaches down the road when you're dealing with insurance companies.

"I kept a log book of everything. All my questions, what step we were at," Zimmer said.

"Go out and buy one of those pocket file folder things. It was the best thing for me. What I did is divided everything — meals, entertainment, travel, gas — and we kept it all organized and separated. That was such a godsend."

Do your homework, and take your time 

When it comes to claiming insurance, don't rush. 

"You have to be very careful. Know your policy. Find out what you had, and be slow with that," said Trevor Vance, 40, a Slave Lake oilsands chemical company worker, who lost his home and everything in it. 

He remembers sitting down with an insurance rep not long after the fire broke out and being asked to write a list of the contents of his home and how much each item was worth. 

The smouldering remains of houses in Slave Lake, Alta., on May 16, 2011. Whole neighbourhoods were flattened by a devastating wildfire that swept through the town of 7,000 destroying more than forty per cent of buildings. Now the residents are reaching out to the people of Fort McMurray and surrounding communities. (Ian Jackson/Canadian Press)

"What I would suggest to people is that you just take that list and you tell them, 'You know what, we'll sit back with you in a month or so, and we'll re-evaluate this list,'" he said. "'Cause you're not going to remember everything."

Write stuff down as it comes to you, he said, and wander around department stores looking for items that match your own. 

"Just walk around and snap pictures and go, 'Oh my God, that's my TV at The Brick,' or 'This is my couch,' and compile as much physical evidence as you can."

Take all the help you can get 

When Mandy Larrson, 32, left Slave Lake with her husband, she was "too proud" to take what she saw as handouts. 

"I didn't want pity and I didn't want to be a charity case, so I just went without. I didn't go and have the home-cooked meals that people offered because I didn't want to interrupt. I didn't want to get in the way," she said.

"In reality, we should have been doing that because the times that we did, we made amazing friends."

Roann Baldry of Grassland, Alta., welcomes evacuees fleeing the Fort McMurray wildfires on May 4. Slave Lake residents say it's good to accept the kindness of strangers when dealing with the trauma of being forced to flee your home. (Erin Collins/CBC)

It's "humbling" to see people come together to help in times of tragedy, Zimmer said. 

"Canada just wrapped their arms around us and looked after us," she said. "We live in a world of terrorism and violence and just horrific things. And yet people, at heart, are really good. They're there to support you and give you what you need."

Don't shut down your emotions

Vance almost lost his marriage as well as his home.

"I kept everything inside thinking I was going to be the strong husband. Well, it was a mistake, for me personally and more my family. It made my wife feel like it wasn't important to me — that's it's just stuff."

If you're a strong guy, go cry on your wife's shoulder. Because she's going to want to be there for you just as much as you're going to want to be there for her.- Trevor Vance, Slave Lake resident

He shut his family out. He sent his kids to New Brunswick to stay with their grandparents. When he cried, he hid away in his truck by himself, ashamed. 

"If you're a strong guy, go cry on your wife's shoulder. Because she's going to want to be there for you just as much as you're going to want to be there for her," he said.

"It put a major strain on my marriage, and thank God we made it through."

Give yourself a break 

There's a lot of down time after an evacuation, so you might as well take some time to enjoy yourself.

Justin Ferrari plays guitar in his truck bed after a mandatory evacuation order forced him to leave Fort McMurray. Slave Lake residents say it's OK to unwind a little in the aftermath of a tragedy. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

"Get out, and don't sit where you're at and dwell on it, because you're still human and you still need to have a life and you still need to have your family time. As long as you're together, you're going to be be OK," said Sharon Watcher, 64, who left Slave Lake with her partner, children and grandchildren.

"Don't feel guilty for having a laugh at something. You might say, 'Oh, I shouldn't be laughing.' Yeah, you should be. ... Your family is with you, you're alive and that's joyful."