Struggling through after-effects of Slave Lake fire

Mikisew CEO Dale Monaghan watched with horror as fire ripped through Slave Lake, his former home and the place where his brother and family still lives.

For a former resident of Slave Lake with present ties through work to Fort Chipewyan, the fire that destroyed so much of his old community hit like a ‘punch in the stomach.’

Two weeks after wildfire ravaged the northern Alberta community, Dale Monaghan, the Chief Operating Officer for the Mikisew Group of Companies, is dealing with the after effects on many different levels.

The disaster has also given him a new appreciation of the importance of being prepared, on both an individual and community level.

Monaghan moved to Slave Lake with his brother in 1990 after University. He spent 12 of his most formative years in the community. He was married there, bought his first house and had his first daughter in the community.

When he left his brother stayed, married a local girl and started a business in the recreation vehicle industry.

Now Monaghan has his sister-in-law and two of her children living at his house after they were evacuated from Slave Lake. His brother and oldest nephew remain in the charred community, assisting in the cleanup efforts. And he and his family remain stunned that a disaster so horrific happened in a place they know and love.

“There is some shock and disbelief,” Monaghan said. “You often watch the news and hear about disasters happening elsewhere, and sometimes get a bit desensitized to it, but in this situation what you hear what is happening is happening in your town. You remember all the good times, buying your first house, bringing home your first child, and your breath is taken away with emotion. It’s like somebody punched you in the stomach.”

The effect on his brother’s family will be even more life-altering. Although their house and business survived the inferno, the future of the town – and consequently, the business – is still up in the air as so many people have lost everything they owned.

Monaghan’s two nieces, aged 8 and 13, started school in Monaghan’s community on May 25. Monaghan said the younger girl has not really grasped the enormity of the situation, as she keeps asking things like “are we going home on Saturday?,” or “can we go to the (Slave Lake) beach on the weekend?” The teenaged niece has been quiet, he said, coming to terms with her new situation in her own way.

Meanwhile his 16-year-old nephew decided not to move to finish his last month of school. Instead the boy stayed in Slave Lake with his father, helping the cleanup process.

The work the father and son team are doing in Slave Lake may be the most positive aspect of the whole ordeal, Monaghan said.

“They are working like brothers in arms,” Monaghan said. “They are literally working side-by-side for 14 hours a day, experiencing things together most people would not experience in a lifetime. You don’t typically do that as a teenager and a father, and it is bringing them closer than ever before.”

As for Fort Chipewyan and other communities surrounded by boreal forest, Monaghan said the Slave Lake fire is a reminder for everyone to think about emergency preparation.

“If it happened in Fort Chipewyan, or in Fort Smith, and we had to pull together, how would we be prepared from a relationship perspective?” he said. “Who do we have in our community we can turn to at a time of need, to get support?”

The disaster has also reinforced the importance of planning on an individual level. Monaghan said he has learned it is often what you do in the first 15 seconds of an emergency that determines how successful you will be.

“Many people had four to five minutes to leave Slave Lake, and it had to be done in a sense of order,” he said. “This has adjusted my outlook. Every day you have to review in your mind what are the threats and dangers, and what will I do if something happens here?  One does not have to dwell on the worries of life to be in touch with ‘what could be’ and formulate a mini plan to take action almost without thinking should the impossible become the reality”

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