Rough road ahead

The long process of restoring Slave Lake's battered infrastructure will take patience and ingenuity

Brian Vance's new office has a view. It just happens to be a view of his old office.


It is mid-September and the chief administrative officer for the Town of Slave Lake is beginning to settle into his new office. The town has only recently moved into its new location on the second floor of the Lakeland Centre building on Main Street.

Across the street are the gutted remains of the Slave Lake Government Centre. The $35.8-million building was completed in 2010 and housed-if only briefly-provincial government offices, the town hall and the library. Now the front entrance is boarded up, while a charred metal frame is all that is left of the library. Repairs and reconstruction won't be complete until 2013.

Dealing with hundreds of displaced residents is all the more challenging when the town office itself has been displaced.

"It certainly made it very difficult," Vance says. "Of course, we lost all of our hard records. We lost approximately a month of our computer records and all our programs."

Vance believes it will take several years to gather this information and fill in the gaps. For now, the town is relying on the records of the provincial government, local utility companies, and engineering firms like Stantec Inc. and Associated Engineering Group Ltd., all of which have offered up information on the town's battered roads, sewers, and gas and water pipelines.


DEMOLISH FIRST

As the town reconstructs its records, it will also face the daunting task of restoring its infrastructure. This will be a long process requiring much patience, and it begins with demolitions.

A consortium was formed between the insurance companies and the Alberta and Slave Lake governments to speed the process. "By doing that, what they were able to do was set up an assembly line operation," he explains. "They had a magnet go through and pick out all the metal. Then they would go through the wood, pull it all out and chip it."

This massive coordination effort spared the town the chaos of hundreds of homeowners acting in isolation. "It helped the rebuild hugely because if we waited for people to do it one at a time they'd be interfering with each other," Vance says. "It would have taken us two years just to get to this stage."

Demolition work began late in June and was completed by the end of September. "To do this in two and a half months is just incredible," he says.

With most of the damaged areas cleared for construction in September, the frames of new homes have begun to sprout. The scars left behind by the fire are less visible now, but many areas still bear the traces of the firefighting effort, which left behind its own mark.

"One of the things that happened as part of firefighting is that heavy equipment went in to take care of the remaining hotspots in the basements, and they did a lot of damage to the roads and sidewalks," Vance says.

That has been the challenge facing Roger Borchert, director of operations for the town. He oversees the day-to-day business of keeping Slave Lake's infrastructure running smoothly-even if it is in rough shape these days.

"The equipment fighting the fires walked up the middle of roads," he says. "Some of the roads were recently repaved, so they were leaving track marks all through the area."

And the heavy equipment didn't leave town once the fires were put out. If anything, there's only more of it around now as part of the rebuilding process.

The fires may have devastated homes, but it's the recovery process that is ruining roads.


ROADS TAKE A BEATING

"The older infrastructure we have isn't necessarily standing up so well because its lifespan was nearing a need for rebuild," Borchert explains. "Every 30 seconds there's a truck coming to the temporary housing sites that are under construction, and they're heavily loaded with gravel or they're heavily loaded with material coming out of those sites.

"Some of our roads are taking a heck of a beating."

In normal circumstances, the town would just set to work on repairing that infrastructure. But there is nothing normal about these circumstances.

It can take a lot of ingenuity to complete even the simplest jobs. Resources like manpower are tight. Even something as basic as taking down the temporary fencing around burned areas requires some wheeling and dealing in order to get done.

"We don't have the manpower to take down 14 kilometres of fencing," Borchert says. To solve the problem, the town made the public an offer: if you want it, take it down yourself.

"We're selling the fencing off as is, where is. We've had quite a few people interested in it and they're taking down the fencing as we sell it."

And that's just a minor job. Larger jobs can be even more difficult to complete.

"We tendered the rebuilding of some lanes-not one taker on it, because there were no trucks available to take on the work. There was no gravel to be had.

"We maxed the capability of the area to do the job," Borchert says, although he remains confident the work will be done in due time. "We'll wait and be patient and deal with it in a different fashion."

The roads may be in rough shape, but they will likely have to wait-there are other, more pressing concerns right now.

"It's one thing to know you have to go in to replace a sidewalk, but is now a proper time?" Borchert asks. "Would we be in the way of the actual construction process and holding that up while people are sitting outside their homes?

"I don't think they want us in their way while their contractors are there."

With hundreds of homes and numerous infrastructure repairs and additions required, it's the equivalent of building a medium-sized village from scratch. The town has to take the long view on the recovery process-this can't happen overnight.

According to Vance, the town is working with a two-year schedule for the rebuild. Still, the town can only do so much. It can clear away the debris, repair the infrastructure and make sure the right development permits are issued promptly, but the future of Slave Lake ultimately rests in the hands of its citizens.

"Now each individual homeowner has to rebuild his home, and there's nothing we can really do as the town to coordinate that," Vance says. "In the end, it's the homeowners that set the schedule."


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