Alberta is contributing $50 million to meet the immediate needs of victims of the Slave Lake fire and rebuilding the fire-ravaged town. 

Officials are now at the evacuation centres assessing the needs of the 7,000 residents. Housing and financial support are the most pressing concerns, said Premier Ed Stelmach on Wednesday. 

It's crucial that residents who have evacuated from Slave Lake and surrounding communities register with the Red Cross, he said in a news release.

"As individual residents will have specific needs and requirements, it is important that we have an accurate list of evacuees."

The funding will begin flowing by week’s end, said Stelmach.

While firefighters have turned the corner battling the fires in Slave Lake, officials say it's still too dangerous for residents to return to the northern Alberta community.

At one point on Wednesday, reporters on a media tour of Slave Lake were ordered to take cover in their vehicles after ammunition in a home started to go off.

The main fire inside the town is now considered under control, but it is not out, said Calgary Fire Department spokesman Brian McAsey.

A dozen fires flared up in the town Tuesday when 70 km/h gusts whipped through the area, but firefighters were able to get them under control, he said.

"Right now it's dangerous to return to Slave Lake, and I'm sorry to say that," said McAsey.

The province says the two fires outside the town are still out of control.

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Slave Lake, located 250 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, was evacuated Sunday when wildfires suddenly turned and blazed through town, destroying more than a third of its homes, along with the town hall and government centre.

Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee and Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau met behind closed doors Wednesday with town residents sheltered at three evacuation centres set up to help people who had to flee the fires.

Evacuees were told it could be weeks before they will be allowed to return.

Officials say it's too dangerous to let anyone back into town because the smoke is too heavy, chemicals hang in the air and there is no electricity, power or drinking water. 

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Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee speaks to the media after a closed-door meeting with evacuees in Athabasca, Alta. Wednesday. (CBC)

"That was a very emotional, difficult task for us, to speak with our residents but I think the message is we're working hard on the ground, to get our community up and running, so we can have them back in our community, and start rebuilding our community," Pillay-Kinnee said after the Athabasca meeting.

Goudreau said that workers can't start taking stock of the damage until the community is safe. However, he expects a list should be ready "within days rather than weeks."

"As soon as we finalize it and feel comfortable with its accuracy, that list will be released."

The news was met with disappointment by residents who still don't know if their homes were destroyed in the fire.

Citizen Bytes

The citizens of Slave Lake describe their experiences and fears in the aftermath of the horrific fire.

'We were given such little warning'

"We were given such little warning. The firefighters and sustainable resource officials let us know evacuation was a possibility, but it wasn't until the wind flared to astronomical proportions and the fire raged closer to town did we get the order to leave our houses." — Pulp mill operator Michael J. Leonard. Read more

"Most people want to know when they can go back home, but, I guess the answer we got was 'weeks'. That's kind of disheartening," Wayne MacIsaac.

"We all understand that we cannot go back to the town. We know that," said Irene Butterworth. "My worst fear is the problem that they had with the water because without good water, you've had it."

Residents also want to know why they got so little warning before the evacuation and why it seemed like so little information filtered down to them over the last few days. 

Even as the fire approached the town's outer limits, residents weren't hearing anything about a need to evacuate.

An evacuation order was eventually issued, but by then the radio station was on fire and roads in and out of the community were closed.

Insurance companies moving in

Insurance companies are starting to deal with an influx of claims from residents who lost their homes to the wildfires. A number of agents have opened temporary offices in nearby Athabasca in hotels and at the evacuation centre.

Aviva Canada agent John Russell expects claims in Slave Lake to surpass the $200 million in the Kelowna, B.C., fires eight years ago.

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Helicopter waterbombers are among the firefighting tools being used. ((Todd Korol/Reuters))

That's because the Kelowna fire mostly destroyed residential homes, while the Slave Lake fire took out homes, businesses and much larger buildings, he said.

Another 200 firefighters from B.C. are arriving Wednesday to help battle 87 fires burning in the province — 23 considered out of control.

Two hundred firefighters from B.C. and Ontario have already joined about 1,000 Alberta firefighters on the ground.

The Alberta government imposed a provincewide fire ban on Tuesday in response to high wildfire risks. People who ignore it face a maximum $5,000 fine and could be held responsible for the costs linked with fighting the fire.

RCMP charged a 24-year-old man with arson Tuesday after a wildfire late Saturday afternoon in Fox Creek. The fire started behind some apartments and began moving toward the town.

Gound crews and water bombers fought the fire for hours, saving the town, said police.

Overwhelmed by donations   

Meanwhile, relief officials have been overwhelmed by the number of donations they've been receiving to help people displaced by the fires. The Canadian Red Cross on Tuesday asked people not to bring them household goods, food or clothing.

The relief organization only accepts cash donations, which enables volunteers to get evacuees exactly what they need.

Information on how to donate can be found on the website of the Canadian Red Cross.

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This dog was one of the Slave Lake pets that was rescued and brought to a centre in Edmonton. (CBC)

A rescue effort was also underway to round up pets that were displaced by the fire.

The first truckload of 80 animals was brought to a shelter outside the evacutation centre at the Edmonton Expo Centre early Wednesday morning.

"The majority of the animals ... we know their owners," said Edmonton Humane Society spokeswoman Shawna Randolph.

"It's basically a heartwarming place to be right now because we're seeing reunion after reunion of people who didn't think that they'd ever get to see their lost pet."

Shelter workers have only seen one animal with injuries related to the fire. A cat had singed whiskers and paws, Randolph said.

Important numbers

  • To donate toiletries, bedding, call Edmonton Emergency Relief Services: 780-428-4422.
  • To donate to Red Cross (financial donations only): 1-800-418-1111.
  • To register as evacuee or to reach evacuees call Red Cross: 1-800-565-4483.
  • Info on hospital patient evacuees: 1-866-301-2668. 
  • Wildfire information line: 1-866-916-INFO.
  • Wildfire road closure hotline: 780-644-5653 or 310-4455.

 

With files from The Canadian Press