Thousands of Slave Lake, Alta., residents who were forced to evacuate their homes to escape a raging wildfire that destroyed about a third of the town will not be permitted to return to their community for at least another week.

Some 7,000 residents fled last weekend when a wildfire fanned by high winds destroyed more than 450 homes and businesses. On Saturday, officials said the evacuation order had been extended.

Officials said displaced residents will not be allowed to return to retrieve personal belongings or see their homes until every property has been inspected for gas leaks, structural damage and health hazards.

The Alberta government has announced it will help people who can't find or afford temporary housing and will cover their costs until the end of August.

A government assistance program will also provide adults with $1,250 each to spend as they see fit, while each child will get $500. Evacuees are getting the money in the form of prepaid debit cards.


Three burned-out vehicles remain in front of what used to be the garage of Sandi Gaskell's home in Slave Lake. (CBC)

On Saturday, residents began moving from various emergency reception centres to interim accommodations, including hotel rooms, until permanent housing is made available.

Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton is opening its student residence to evacuees for the summer.

The future of Sandi Gaskell and her family remains uncertain after their home in Slave Lake burned to the ground. She, her husband, and their daughter are staying with relatives in Camrose, Alta.

'Everyone has been so  kind. We're overwhelmed by that.' —Slave Lake evacuee Sandi Gaskell

She said there was no warning to evacuate, but each familiy member had packed a small suitcase and placed them, along with photo albums, in their car when they saw the smoke approaching.

"So all we had to do was put on our shoes. I grabbed my purse. I almost didn't grab it. We were in such a panic," she told CBC News on Saturday.

Gaskell said she appreciates the provincial aid but added, "We don't want to be a burden to anyone. Everybody has been so kind. Strangers have been giving us cash. Everyone has been so  kind. We're overwhelmed by that."

As for federal aid, Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Friday promised his government would help rebuild Slave Lake.

He talked of assistance while visiting the fire-ravaged town, but did not specify how much money would be provided.

On Saturday, Fort McMurray–Athabasca MP Brian Jean said the government is working towards rebuilding the town.

"The first thing they're going to do, I understand, is they're going to rebuild the commercial enterprises so people can go somewhere to pick up a loaf of bread and some milk and some eggs," he said from an evacuation centre Athabasca, Alta.

"Most of people take that for granted, but in northern Alberta we're fairly isolated … so they have to put the commercial enterprises back in before the people can be put back in and I think they're moving very quickly to do so."

Public warning system questioned

Meanwhile, residents of Slave Lake continue to question the handling of the disaster in that community.

When the northern Alberta town was evacuated last weekend, many residents were confused and given conflicting information. Officials did not use the province's Emergency Public Warning System, a state-of-the-art warning system that takes over radio and television broadcasts.

Residents like Roger Auger said they didn't know what to do or where to go.

"Like, they're supposed to have everything ready — disaster plans and they spent all this money on it. Well, what happened?" Auger told CBC News.

Lucille Partington, a retired teacher who helped lead a review of a 2001 wildfire in Chisolm, Alta., said the decision not to use the public warning system prevented people from getting accurate information.

"It's a case of people getting onto the same page quickly, because then people are aware."

But Colin Lloyd, executive director of operations for the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said it's not clear whether Slave Lake officials even knew how to use the system because it's a voluntary program.

"The Emergency Public Warning System is really predicated on local users who are able to assess the local circumstances and give information to the public, and that's why it really is the local, authorized users," he said.

"It's a local decision and they consider it amongst a whole suite of different options."

As of February 2011, the system had been activated 80 times since 1998 for disasters and emergencies, three of which were for fires.

Lloyd said the Alberta Emergency Management Agency is already reviewing the public warning system and will look at whether municipalities need more training on how to use it.

Fewer fires burning

The number of wildfires that were burning across the province is down. That number has dropped to 53 from 56 on Friday. Ten of those fires were described as out of control.

Jean said rain falling throughout the area is a welcome relief.

"We're getting rain for the first time in a long time here in northern Alberta," he said. "It's coming down and I'm very excited because we can put out some of those … forest fires that are going crazy and that are threatening a lot of homes and a lot of the economy, so I'm very excited about the rain."

A provincewide ban on open fires remained in effect.

Meanwhile, weary firefighters who continue to battle wildfires in the region are coping with the loss of one of their own. A helicopter pilot crashed Friday in shallow water at Lesser Slave Lake and was declared dead at the scene.

Two investigators from the Transportation Safety Board are now on site at a helicopter crash near Slave Lake, the CBC's Bryan Labby reported.