Slave Lake wildfire focus of Kulig research

University of Lethbridge researcher Dr. Judith Kulig will travel to Slave Lake, Alberta and meet with members of the local and municipal governments, First Nations community leaders, and families affected by the recent wildfire in order to learn more about how the people in the community are coping.

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 residences.

Even with recent announcements of funding for rebuilding, and financial and moral support from organizations and individuals outside the community, the task of replacing physical structures lost or damaged by the fire is very significant.

More importantly, the process of looking after the physical and emotional well-being of the people affected by the fire and its aftermath -- and how well the community recovers – is what Kulig and her team are looking into. Her initial visit will set the stage for research that is expected to take a year to complete.

Kulig and her colleagues have spent the past decade examining what happens in smaller communities when disaster strikes, and how the overall health of the community is reflected in its ability to recover from disaster.

"Over the past decade, wildfires in Canada have forced nearly 700,000 people from more than 250 communities and caused massive amounts of financial, environmental and personal damage, including job losses, the loss of residents in a community, as well as lingering health and emotional challenges," Kulig said.

"We want to talk to the residents, members of the local and regional governments, the local First Nations communities and anyone who was affected by this disaster so we can gain insight into what can be done for the community as it rebuilds."

Kulig said that the research will focus initially on family experiences, and that community members will be confidentially surveyed in a variety of ways.

"I can't stress enough that the information we gather is confidential, and will not be used in any way to identify anyone. We know it is often very difficult for people to discuss this type of major loss, but the results will hopefully help the community rebuild in a way that factors in their overall physical and personal health."

"We are going to be in Slave Lake on a regular basis and are hoping to talk to families, and we also expect to meet residents at public places like the regular lunch gathering at the Friendship Centre, where we hope to talk to a wide variety of people about their experiences."

The information Kulig and her team gathers will be published independently and will be freely available to communities conducting disaster planning, communities that have experienced a major adverse event, or community members interested in learning more about helping their community recover from a disaster.

Among the different ways the team gathers information, Kulig plans traditional survey methods such as personal interviews and an on-line questionnaire but is also trying something new for this type of project: She hopes to equip families with cameras and have them record their impressions of the community, and have them capture in photos and words what they want Slave Lake and the surrounding area to be like as the re-building process moves forward.

Called 'photo-voice' research, Kulig said it is a method that can often result in surprising insights. "People express their feelings in many different ways, and we're going to try this approach here. We plan to ask people to talk about their photos, and we'd also look at creating an exhibit of the images they produce if the project goes forward."

"Understanding what this community goes through -- and gathering that information in a variety of ways -- will be informative for other communities that experience wildfires and other disasters," Kulig said. "It is also an opportunity for community members to discuss their experiences, and to ensure our findings are useful in the development of policies and/or guidelines in Slave Lake and other communities."

Information about other communities affected by large-scale wildfires can be found at The website houses research results from wildfires in northern Saskatchewan, the BC interior and the Crowsnest Pass area of southwestern Alberta.

To contact the researchers by e-mail, please send a message to

A toll-free telephone number is also available: 1-877-382-7119.

Kulig is in Slave Lake until Thursday, August 11 and has met community members, First Nations and regional government officials. She presented to the Slave Lake Town Council on Tuesday, August 9. On a regular basis, Kulig and/or a member of her research team will return to the community to connect with residents as the project progresses.
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Dr. Judith Kulig, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Lethbridge
Cell (403) 894-4676 / Toll free 1-877-382-7119
Municipal District of Lesser Slave Lake #124:
Allan Winarksi, Municipal Manager
Cell: (780) 805-1142 / Office (780) 849-4888 / Toll free 1-866-449-4888
Town of Slave Lake Contact:
John Sparks, Communications Lead, Recovery Operations
Cell (403) 660-8885 / e-mail:
Town Office (780) 849-8000 / 1-800-661-2594