Fire and food

Last month, wildfires devastated the town of Slave Lake in Alberta.

When he finally got the phone call to head back to his store, Tim Halliday, franchisee of the No Frills in Slave Lake, Alta., couldn't wait. He and his wife, Elaine, jumped into their truck for the journey back. They hoped everything would be OK when they got there. It was May 22.

Seven days earlier the Hallidays had been hurrying in the opposite direction. Like everyone else in Slave Lake, they were leaving town as wildfires were closing in. There were three roads out of town and, depending on the shifting fires, police sometimes had to shut them down. People found themselves backtracking to leave. In the Hallidays' case, a trip that would normally have taken one hour took five. Still, "we expected we'd be back the next morning," says Halliday.

Instead, it would be a week, during which time the wildfires roared in. About one-third of Slave Lake was destroyed, including whole neighbourhoods, businesses and the town's new library. Yet both during and after the evacuation, grocers and other food retailers played an important part.

After the fire had swept through Slave Lake, grocery stores were deemed "essential businesses" by emergency officials with the Alberta government. It meant that Halliday and others, including managers and staff from Slave Lake's Sobeys and Wal-Mart as well as drugstores and gas stations, were sent back to town several days ahead of residents. They were to get their businesses open so that people arriving back could immediately buy food and other necessities.

When the Hallidays returned to the store on May 22 they were relieved to discover it hadn't been damaged. Then it was time to get to work. Halliday and his team, including professional cleaners and No Frills store development people, spent two days getting the power up, cleaning, sanitizing certain areas (the food in freezers had gone bad), then another two days restocking. "We put in 13-hour days," says Halliday. "But when people came back the main thing was that we were open for business for everyone who needed us."

Other stores were equally busy. Wal-Mart made sure it had a full stock of pharmacy supplies for people who needed prescriptions refilled. Same with other essentials, like diapers. And in a nice touch, about 50 employees from surrounding Wal-Mart stores in Alberta volunteered to work at the Slave Lake location in order to let the regular employees deal with cleanup at their own homes in town.

Grocers helped out in other ways, too. Both Wal-Mart and Canada Safeway (which doesn't have a store in Slave Lake but is all across Alberta) worked closely with the Red Cross. Wal-Mart shipped three truckloads of dry groceries, diapers and water to hotels where Slave Lake residents were living afterthe evacuation. "We just gave it away to them," says Andrew Pelletier, vice-president of corporate affairs and sustainability at Wal-Mart Canada.

Safeway, meanwhile, donated meals to feed workers at emergency call centres in B.C. and Alberta that had been set up to deal with the disaster. Safeway employees made the deliveries. "Some of these volunteers were working long hours and it's quite stressful, so we provided lunches and fresh fruit and snacks," says Betty Kellsey, PR manager for Safeway in Alberta.

Customers also got involved, donating money to the Red Cross disaster relief fund through checkouts at No Frills and Safeway stores. Other stores pitched in with barbecue fundraisers, donated food or made their parking lots available for fundraising events and to act as a marshalling point to gather community donations. Manufacturers also stepped up. Italpasta donated 10,000 pounds of products for Slave Lake residents living in shelters.

In Halliday's case, he was able to help out even when he couldn't be at his store. During the week of the evacuation, he gave emergency workers in town permission to "break" into his store and take what they needed for free–bottles of water, juice...anything. Says Halliday: "We couldn't be there to help, but we still did what we could."

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