When I was unemployed in Edmonton, I actually had a job interview in Slave Lake. Sure, it was a bit of a drive north, but it was a beautiful landscape. Hills and trees as far as you could see - which actually wasn't all that far, thanks to the hills and trees. And the lake, of course. For some reason, I'm always mildly impressed when a town actually resembles its namesake. (Possibly because I grew up in Moose Jaw... but I digress.) The point remains, my impression of Slave Lake was that of an outdoorsman's dream. Boating, fishing, snowmobiling, hunting, camping, hiking... all of these activities seemed as easy to set up in Slave Lake as renting a DVD and ordering pizza in the city. But it still felt like a city, too! Perhaps there wasn't a large enough population to host an NHL team, but living there didn't mean you were cutting yourself off from the rest of the world.
It seemed like a nice place to live.
And, as you may have heard, since this weekend, it's been cut off from the rest of the world.
40% of the town -- including the town hall and the fire station -- destroyed.
A complete evacuation of all 7,000 residents.
Nobody knows when they can return, or what they'll return to.
And the fires are still out of control.
I remember living in Swan Hills when there were fires nearby. The smell of ash was everywhere, and the sun boiled red in the sky, regardless of where the fires were. From a satellite view, the fires only show up as a few spots, but in the town, it felt claustrophobic, as if the fire could sneak around and come up behind you while your back was turned. For the fires to surround you, as they did in Slave Lake, it must have been like someone threw a sack over your head and told you to run.
And so, I found myself in Canadian Tire today, picking up a gift card for a friend of a friend that just lost their home. Before I went to the cash register, though, I took one more look through the aisles, wondering if this was the right way to help. What could they get here that would help? Naturally, this soon turned into the question, "What would I buy first, if I'd lost everything?"
I'd still have a job (or at least a great reason to claim EI), and my home would be insured, so I wouldn't have to worry about the barest of necessities, like food and water. But what next?
Would I buy tools, so that I could start building on the ashes ahead of the construction provided by the insurance policy?
Would I buy cookware, so that I could get my family away from eating at restaurants?
Would I get my car back into working order, so that I'd be able to start ferrying things back and forth?
Would I buy clothes, just to have some physical comfort?
Or what about toys? Not for me, but if I had a family, I'd want my kids to at least have some games or stuffed animals or something to distract them from the harsh reality their parents would be facing.
It's interesting to me that all of these answers have something to do with reclaiming dignity - being able to prove to yourself that you can regain the stability you'd lost. Perhaps that explains my own answer: I'd want to clean the place down to its foundation, so that I could claim at least a small victory over the fires. I might fall asleep under a thin blanket with a poor meal in my stomach, but I'd be clean. Thus, I'd buy cleaning supplies -- mops and brooms, buckets and bags, ammonia and vinegar.
(Right now, I suspect my mother is bursting with laughter as I write this, and she doesn't know why.)
But, that's my answer, not that of this family I'm shopping for. They need to reclaim their lives on their own terms, which is why I stick to the original plan of just buying them a gift card. But that still seems a bit impersonal...
Before I drop it off at the collection center, I return home to get two more things: one of my bunnyhugs, because something soft and warm is never unappreciated. And my favourite towel... because I'll defer to wiser men than I when it comes to being prepared.
Good luck, Slave Lake. I hope to visit your outdoors again some day.