Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Slave Lake, Alberta, eagerly await a new chapel after their former chapel was burned in wildfires on 15 May 2011. One-third of the northern Alberta town was lost when two wildfires converged on the community, causing damage of over $1 billion.
Living in the heavily forested area means short-term precautionary evacuations are held almost annually, but the fires had never singed the town before. This time everyone other than emergency personnel was required to leave Slave Lake for at least two weeks.
The massive devastation was beyond anyone's imagination. Close to ten thousand people were suddenly displaced. Some grabbed 72-hour emergency kits and thought they'd be back in their homes the next day. Instead the fire wiped out entire neighbourhoods, government buildings, the town library, stores, and many churches including the Slave Lake chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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Steve Anderson, a local Mormon leader in Slave Lake left the town knowing that the chapel had been destroyed. "While the fire was happening that Sunday night, I managed to come down the road on my quad, just to confirm the building had been lost." Anderson ensured citizens reached safety and contacted Church leader Melvin Wong in Edmonton, Alberta, to report what was happening 250 kilometres north of the city.
Wong immediately organized volunteers in Edmonton to help the evacuees, who arrived at the Mormon chapel in Athabasca, 130 kilometres southeast of Slave Lake. The distressed were met with hygiene kits and meals driven up that night from Edmonton. Members of the Church in Edmonton prepared 800 hygiene kits for The Salvation Army to deliver to public evacuation centres. One member opened his private campground to a group of evacuees who had spent those first few days living out of the chapel in Athabasca.
Spirits were dampened when not long after the fires, heavy rain caused two separate floods in the already devastated community. When the town went ahead with their annual summer sandcastle-building competition on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake, Anderson initiated a free barbecue for the community, feeding over 500 and distributing quilts and other goods. Other local merchants contributed supplies when they heard of Anderson's plan. "I thought it would be nice to give back to people. ... As Christians, we wanted to reach out to individuals and families to help them know there are people who care about them."
Wong added, "Sometimes when you have a great loss, there is frustration. And sometimes it's human nature to blame others. The power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ can help people move beyond those feelings, to say, 'Okay Lord, we put it in Your hands now. Please help us.'"
The chapel was located in the last quadrant of the town to be cleared of debris and after a long wait, the ceremonial ground-breaking for the new building was held on 8 September 2012 on the chapel's original site. With the roof in place for winter, the interior work is now underway. After being forced to use various temporary accommodations for over a year, members eagerly anticipate the completion of the new chapel with hopes for completion next summer. In the meantime, they will work with others to rebuild not only their community, but also their town spirit.