Kulig research released on Slave Lake

A year-long study of people affected by the 2011 Slave Lake, Alberta, Wildfire indicates that as the community continues to recover, particular attention must be paid to families and children.

Dr. Judith Kulig, a University of Lethbridge Health Sciences researcher and wildfire recovery expert, was on the ground in Slave Lake a month after the disaster.

Along with post-doctoral research associate Dr. Anna Pujadas Botey and colleagues from the University of Lethbridge, Queens, Concordia and Laurentian Universities, Kulig spent the past year surveying families, children, health care professionals, emergency responders, local government officials and educators to get a sense of how the community was, and is, handling the aftermath of the fire.

The May 2011 wildfires affected a large area around Slave Lake and destroyed approximately one third of the town, including homes, the community's library, government offices, businesses and much more. 740 families lost their homes.

The fires resulted in an evacuation of 10,000+ area residents for 12 days, required the combined efforts of some 1,700 emergency responders, and caused an estimated $1 billion of damage.

"This will be no surprise, but we found that parents who were, quite frankly, emotionally drained and stretched to their limits by this event were having trouble supporting their kids – who were equally affected," says Kulig.

"In addition to the displacement caused by the fire, schools were closed, living arrangements were different, and the families were making big decisions: do they rebuild? Do they leave? If their home is gone, where do they live? Even if they had not lost their home, they still had to make sense of what happened."

The researchers also found that there were several supports in place to assist families and children with their emotional and health-related recoveries, which kicked in very soon after the fire, and are ongoing – a positive step that Kulig says is critical to helping the community move forward.

"We noted that several agencies increased their service levels, brought in additional people and launched programs to help people cope. These were excellent responses and we suggest that those programs continue, since the emotional recovery time from a disaster like this can take several years."

Kulig says that, as researchers moved through the community engaging people, they found ample evidence that Slave Lake and area exhibited a solid level of community cohesion and resilience, which is critical to the rebuilding process.

"Despite the huge amount of upheaval, many people initially told us that they were brought closer together as a family because of the fire, and the research bears this out. 92 per cent of the respondents indicated that they were as close, or closer, because of the disaster. As well, we measured family cohesion, which measures a family's ability to work together or relate well to each other, and 89 per cent of respondents said they were as -- or more – cohesive than before the fire."

Kulig cautions, however, that the actual transition back to what some families expressed as 'normal' would not be without challenges.

"We identified six key areas people experienced, and need to be mindful of even now, to ensure they are coping constructively with the disaster's aftermath."

Kulig says that people develop different life goals and priorities. As well, their interactions with their own family members, friends and neighbours and others in the community changed.

"We also noted that people developed new values and perceptions of the important things in their lives. We heard people say a number of times, '…it's just stuff, it can be replaced, but my family can't…'. This is a significant indicator that there is strength and resolve in the community to move forward."