Wisdom Gained: Lessons from Slave Lake's Recovery

Today is the 5th anniversary of the Slave Lake fire. Wisdom Gained: The Town of Slave Lake shares its reflections on recovery from the 2011 wildfire is a 42-page review on the story of Slave Lake’s disaster relief and recovery. It is a jargon-free account of what worked and what did not. Wisdom Gained is the how-to guide to rebuild a Canadian community in 3 years. It’s also a fascinating peek at how charities help in a Canadian disaster with useful insights for donors to give intelligently.  Let’s learn from the past to best help Fort McMurray’s recovery.  

Key giving tips from Slave Lake fire:

  • Donate cash to help the township and its local charities – Salvation Army, foodbanks, community centres
  • Do NOT send donated goods
  • Know the local needs of the community
  • Do not show up to help without checking in with the township who is leading the recovery and do not expect the township to provide you with room and board while you do your charity work.

… NGOs can sometimes stand in the way of effective assisting with recovery.”

Wisdom Gained has an entire section on donations. Giving stuff hurt Slave Lake’s recovery. Donations show donors care and lets those hit by a disaster know that they are not alone. But donate cash, not stuff. Slave Lake was inundated with donations of stuff. Pallets of items arrived in the town, truckloads of clothes, furniture and household items. Sorting and storing these goods was very labour intensive. This created an enormous burden on Slave Lake when energy was needed elsewhere. Around 75% of the goods that arrived could not be used. Slave Lake, already in a cash-flow crunch (municipal infrastructure like fire hydrants and side walks were not covered by insurance, disaster relief funding had not yet arrived), had to pay the unexpected additional disposal cost of getting rid of these donations.  

Ironically, while Slave Lake was awash in donated stuff, its local charities suffered during the recovery. “Regular donations to the Salvation Army, food bank and the Friendship Centre were down drastically during this time as the focus was on those affected by the disaster.” The town’s volunteers were all in high demand (maybe sorting stuff?). This made it harder for Slave Lake’s most vulnerable to get help.

Cash donations also maintain the dignity, pride and freedom of the recipients. Nobody wants to receive charity. The people of Slave Lake found the sudden turn of the tables psychologically hard. Just weeks before they were giving to charities, now they were receiving charity.  

This was also hard for charities working in Slave Lake to grasp. Most of Slave Lake’s homeowners were well-insured and an estimated 75% did not miss a pay cheque. Yet they had needs. All those affected by a disaster have needs. “Initially, the Red Cross had a hard time justifying support for these families because these were not its typical clients.” Learning the needs of Slave Lake, the Red Cross modified its ways of doing things. The Red Cross provided support services for two years after the fire and funded community initiatives from the donations it received.

Wisdom Gained recollects that many NGO’s were less involved in the recovery of Slave Lake for a variety of reasons, including the high level of government support and involvement, and due to these NGO’s lacking local knowledge on Slave Lake’s people and needs.

Wisdom Gained’s checklist delineates its local charities and outside charities. For effectively helping in a recovery, it recommends townships:

  • Delay arrival of outside NGOs into the community until you are ready for them.
  • Ensure outside NGOs have realistic expectations and understand the need.
  • Pick a local organization to accept cash donations for the town’s recovery efforts.
  • Include information about donations in early public communications.
  • Arrange with one or more outside organizations to run a physical donations centre.
  • Encourage ongoing donations to charities such as the food bank and Salvation Army.
  • Encourage organizations who have received donations to work together to select worthwhile community projects.

Wisdom Gained mentions 5 main charities that came into Slave Lake and provided services:

  • the Canadian Red Cross interviewed and assessed people’s needs, assisted with finances, referrals, accommodation and provided psychological support to children and families. Donations funded school lunches and recreation for children and have supported many other community projects,
  • the Salvation Army provided a mobile truck with meals,
  • Samaritan’s Purse helped clean up debris from the fire and floods,
  • Mennonite Disaster Services came prepared to search through rubble and rebuild houses; since neither of these were options, it helped Samaritan’s Purse in general cleanup,
  • The Billy Graham Evangelical Association of Canada had trained counsellors who provided emotional support.

“If volunteer agencies called saying they needed food, accommodation, showers, they were advised not to come.”

Many other NGOs showed up unannounced and uninvited in Slave Lake and did not check in with the township that led recovery efforts. If you are thinking about going to Fort McMurray to help out, don’t ask for room and board, check in to see if there’s a need that matches your expertise, and don’t get in the way.

Wisdom Gained’s checklist is a nearly complete recovery manual except it forgets to provide Kensington Palace’s telephone number. Will and Kate’s royal visit was a highlight community event lifting Slave Lake’s spirits. Disaster recovery is far more than building new houses; it is rebuilding a whole community’s strength and resilience to adjust to the new normal.

On this 5th year anniversary, congratulations Slave Lake. Fort McMurray’s recovery will be even better if we act on Slave Lake’s wisdom.


Wisdom Gained: The Town of Slave Lake shares its reflections on recovery from the 2011 wildfire, compiled by the Northern Alberta Development Council (NADC) at the request of the Town of Slave Lake (2013) 



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