Hundreds of Slave Lake residents gathered Tuesday to mark the one-year anniversary of the wildfire that destroyed more than one-third of their northern Alberta town, with the premier and other dignitaries praising them for their work to rebuild the community.
"You are a community now renowned, I believe, around the world for doing something extraordinary," said Premier Alison Redford.
"In 12 months you have taken an unspeakable tragedy and turned it into some success, some victory and, when I walk around this town, an awful lot of happiness," she told the more than 300 people at the Slave Lake Civic Centre.
Redford also promised her commitment to building schools and clinics in order to bring new families into Slave Lake.
Following Redford, Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen promised the province will "act very quickly" to release and act on recommendations contained in its delayed report on the response to the fire.
The fire destroyed 374 properties, making it the second-costliest disaster in Canadian history, with an estimated $742 million in insurance claims.
Many residents continue to struggle, Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee told the audience, and she understood why they wanted to avoid a celebration of the anniversary.
'Selfless' volunteers help in rebuilding
Earlier, the audience watched a Lesser Slave River district documentary on the May 15, 2011, disaster and the community's efforts to rebuild and broke into applause and tears as the video showed signs reading "Done," indicating another home had been reconnected with water, electricity and gas.
Later in the ceremony, Steven Armstrong with the Red Cross praised the selfless volunteers who drove to Slave Lake response centres after the fire, part of the 360 volunteers who helped in response to the fire.
Lesser Slave River Reeve Denny Garrett said he spent much of the morning at a pancake breakfast thanking the volunteers who helped the town get back on its feet.
"One thing that really struck home to me is when I watched the people that came in so unselfishly a year ago and took time out of their lives to help us rebuild ours," he said to applause.
"I'm not a hugging person … but I damn near hugged everyone of those guys who walked in the door," he said.
Residents who attended the ceremony said the anniversary has stirred up feelings about the fire.
Lisa Sterr said she was thankful that the speeches recognized that some people are still struggling.
"It was really surprising, I didn't really think all those emotions would kind of come back," she said. "But I'm just glad they had the lights turned off."
Wayne Bacon believes he's come a long way since last year and he's optimistic now that the town is rebuilding.
However, he admits it was hard to watch some of the news coverage that preceded Tuesday's anniversary.
"I'm a little shaky," he said. "I think tomorrow will be a better day, then it's over with."
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