Burnt Out, But Not For Long

Albertans live up to the frontier, tenacious builder cliche. Slave Lake will not sit vacant for long

Along the highway on the way to North Country Fair there is a stretch of former trees converted from fauna to entomology — stiff spider legs blackened by fire. Harsh signs hiss against trespassing here, but we often stop for a cocktail and take in one of the strangest landscapes in the province, bristly black sticks 30 feet tall angling up the hill, the middle of one of those relentlessly everywhere shaving commercials where razor justice will rip your flight suit right off you, your new shave will be so memorable. A bed of moss and tiny flowers to sit on. It’s a place of peace (if you ignore the signs).

There are similar sights up through Yukon, burned lands more amicably labelled by date and inspiring in their way — every carload becomes a scientific observation squad of how the land comes back to verdant, just add years, decades.

What happened in Slave Lake over the weekend was, for a moment, the worst thing happening in the entire world. Families of my friends have described the last minute chaos, of humans sticking around far longer than any deer would dare in their neighbourhood’s final respiration. Eyes burning with plastic siding soot, nausea at the realization that the sun turning red and purple and black is the final light your home — your home — will ever reflect.

I worry about the small-town homeless. They do exist, shuffling around at dawn. Did they get out OK?

Tales are trickling down of pets left in houses over the weekend, now airborne dust, of the debate between storing photos in albums or hard drives mattering not a spit; it’s all charcoal and melted plastic now, and starting with loss like this the human fury has come. Where was the government to warn us? Why is the media coverage so spartan?

Like so many lakes, both forces have receded from old glory. But by design we elect the smallest government possible. And no one wants to pay for newspapers, either. Who do you think actually wrote the stories for the last 200 years? TV anchors? I’m not trivializing the loss here. I’m mournfully pointing out how it illuminates others. We are, after all, a civilization in transition, if not outright decline. This, despite Twitter.

Slave Lake has the dubious honour of joining irradiated Fukushima, drowned Manitoba, neglected New Orleans, crumbling Detroit, the rubble of Haiti and all sorts of other argued-to-be unrelated places where no real blame can ever be fully assigned, they just are what they are — places where people now numbering 7 billion got in the way of history both human and geological.

The consensus is that we will not talk about global warming here, our provincial survival apparently depends on that. We can try and blame smokers for this town converted to pollution (I see those highway pricks littering all the time driving to work), or even tailpipes igniting twigs and leaves; no one will ever know anything besides the fact however humans may have caused it, they also paid for it.

And the bitterness will come, to which it has every right in such upheaval, which may sell a few papers and even spark brief conversation to gild the beloved frontier against irrepressible nature.

The happy difference is Albertans actually do stand up to the cliche of being tenacious builders, lucky enough to live in one of the few places that can afford to pull ours back from the brink. This would not be the same story out East. Small towns across our province are already gathering their resources to help, benefit concerts in Edmonton being planned by pretty rappers. Like the pipeline disaster earlier this month — also the worst place in the world briefly — we’ll fix it up. It just might take a while, but the moss and tiny flowers are already apparent on the ground.




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