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Slave Lake residents offer help for evacuees

The memory of fire tearing apart a small town in 2011 still lingers and the effects are still felt today in Slave Lake, Alta.
Wayne Ghostkeeper, Barb Courtorielle, Sharon Watchel and Ali Mouallem with a full truck of donated items from Slave Lake, Alta. residents for Cariboo wildfire evacuees. Nearly half of the northern Alberta community was destroyed by a wildfire six years ago.

The memory of fire tearing apart a small town in 2011 still lingers and the effects are still felt today in Slave Lake, Alta.

Sharon Watchel remembers what she and many others went through as 40 per cent of the buildings burnt down in the northern Alberta town of about 7,000.

This is why Watchel stepped up to help the thousands of evacuees displaced from the Cariboo wildfires in B.C.

"I knew I had to do something. It was driving me crazy," she said.

"You just have to. If you don't do anything and sit and just watch the news, then that's all you are doing. We've been through this and we all need to be part of the solution."

Watchel and other members of the Slave Lake community felt a need to help their neighbors in BC. through the wildfire situation.

There are now 10,000 evacuees registered at the Emergency Reception Centre at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George.

Last week, a letter written by Watchel arrived in Prince George along with various gift cards making their way into the hands of Art and Brenda Jen Venne.

"Our daughter Fallon lives in Slave Lake and she brought them here on behalf of the people of Slave Lake," Art said.

"They are returning the generosity. So,we wanted to make sure that these cards went to the right place," Brenda said.

The Jen Vennes did make sure the letter and gift cards went to the right people at the Emergency Reception Centre at CNC.

Prince George City Mayor Lyn Hall made a call to Watchel thanking her and the people of Slave Lake for their donation and her moving letter.

"I was personally overwhelmed to get the call just because I've been through this," Watchel said.

In her letter, Watchel explains the difficulty and challenges of starting anew amidst such tragedy.

"To my dear friends to the west," she wrote, "please accept these gift cards as a token of our care for you and your family and your community. I pray you all return home and can rebuild your lives and communities with the spirit that I know all Canadians carry," Watchel writes. "I know from our Slave Lake fire that we are a much stronger and caring community. The losses can never be replaced. A new home built will not be home for a long time, but it will eventually become so."

For Watchel and others in Slave Lake, the gift cards were aimed at providing comfort no matter how small, whether it be buying children a treat at McDonalds or purchasing gas.

"No one can express the love and caring that comes along with these cards," Watchel said.

On Monday, two residents from Slave Lake arrived with a trailer full of water, food, blankets and bedding, and baby supplies.

The trailer was full of items for the Salvation Army from donations raised at a Rotary Club BBQ and brunch, which they sponsored over the weekend.

"People were so generous with funds so we just made purchases and we had children help also. One little boy painted a box from Slave lake to the evacuees," Watchel said.

Opening their trailer, Wayne Ghostkeeper and Don Willier from Slave Lake, began sharing their goods and signatures from residents and children who were eager to send their best wishes to the evacuees in Prince George.

For Watchel, community spirit and hope still lies at the heart of the Slave Lake community today.

"For us the spirit of community and the dynamics of the town changed. But we like each other better. We've been through the loss but also through the gain," Watchel said.

And for the evacuees in Prince George, Watchel continues to spread that hope.

"Please reach out to each other and gain what comfort you can from each other. It's OK to be angry, frightened and sad but there is also joy. You are alive and with each passing day, it will get better. I promise that."

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