Fort McMurray fire: What lessons were learned from the tragic 2011 Slave Lake blaze?

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray emergency operations centre evacuated' Fort McMurray emergency operations centre evacuated
WATCH ABOVE: Fort McMurray emergency operations centre evacuated – May 4, 2016

For Tyler Warman, the wildfire devastating the city of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta is a painful reminder of the catastrophic blaze that destroyed his community five years ago.

When Warman, the mayor of Slave Lake, Alberta, and other crews from his small town arrived in Fort McMurray Tuesday to help battle the ongoing fire, he said the memories of the 2011 disaster come rushing back.

READ MORE: Live updates of Fort McMurray wildfire

“A lot of déjà vu, to be honest. Just that overwhelming sense of trying to control Mother Nature. It is a tough one to do,” Warman told Global News.

“The one thing I’ll never forget about Slave Lake was the explosions. You’ve got ammunition going off; you’ve got propane tanks and gas tanks and all kinds of things blowing up. Rolling into Fort McMurray last night, it was exactly the same. That is the one that always sticks with me: the explosions.”

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Five years ago, a wildfire consumed more than a third of Slave Lake. It caused more than $700 million in damage, and at the time, was the second-costliest insured disaster in Canadian history, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

The fire destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless. Although no civilians were injured, a firefighting helicopter pilot died after crashing on Lesser Slave Lake.

So far, the Fort McMurray fire has destroyed roughly 1,600 homes and buildings, leading to comparisons with the 2011 blaze.

READ MORE: ‘It’s like Armageddon here’ – Fort McMurray resident who stayed in town during fire describes city

Warman said he and others from Slave Lake are honoured to be helping battle the blaze in Fort McMurray.

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“We lived this in 2011. We were successful and we rebounded from that, and it was a long, tough road,” he said. “But we got there because of the help [from] some the communities out there who came to our aid both during the fire and afterwards.”

“We are just very proud and honoured to come up here and pay some of that back.”

WATCH: Fort McMurray evacuation larger than Slave Lake in 2011

Click to play video: 'Notley: Fort McMurray evacuation larger than Slave Lake in 2011' Notley: Fort McMurray evacuation larger than Slave Lake in 2011
Notley: Fort McMurray evacuation larger than Slave Lake in 2011 – May 4, 2016

READ MORE: Roughly 1,600 buildings destroyed in ‘catastrophic’ fire

Premier Rachel Notley said the evacuation of 80,000 Fort McMurray residents is the largest in the province’s history.

“In terms of fire, this is our biggest fire evacuation,” she said. “This is bigger than Slave Lake.”

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Warman, who is a volunteer firefighter, said painful lessons were learned in the aftermath of the 2011 disaster.

“We spent a lot of time and energy and money after the fire in 2011 to look at ways to deal with wildfire better through equipment and training with our teams, and how we communicate with residents and some of the Fire Smart principles,” he said.

“There’s a lot things you can do to make things better, but that being said you can never control Mother Nature, and she is going to do what she is going to do.”

READ MORE: Dramatic video shows Fort McMurray residents fleeing raging wildfire

Judith Kulig, a health sciences professor at the University of Lethbridge, wrote a report in the wake of Slave Lake, and found there were many lessons to be learned from the tragic experience.

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“The biggest lesson learned for the community, for any community in preparing for disaster, is to have connections and know people,” she said. “And not only have a familiarity with a disaster plan in your area and have an emergency bag packed, but the stronger the community is beforehand the better they are going to do after in the recovery.”

Kulig said having cash on hand, a spare gas can, and knowing your medical prescriptions are essential to emergency planning.

During the recovery process, counselling needs to be provided for everyone affected by the fire, including first responders and volunteers.

“Afterwards, it’s really important that counselling and activities and anything that can help people get over the tragedy are provided for all members of the community,” Kulig said. “We also tend to forget that firefighters — whether they be volunteer or paid — and first responders, such as police, need follow-up assistance and help.”

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READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: How Canadians can help

She advised anyone looking to help the city of Fort McMurray to donate to the Canadian Red Cross rather than sending clothes or other items.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his thoughts are with Albertans, and that the federal government is mobilizing Canadian Forces aircraft to help.

“While the full extent of the damage isn’t yet known, we certainly do know that, for those who have been affected by this fire, it is absolutely devastating. It’s a loss on a scale that is hard for many of us to imagine,” Trudeau said in Ottawa Wednesday afternoon.

*With files from Global Edmonton


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