The federal government will help rebuild Slave Lake, Alta., after a devastating wildfire, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said while visiting the fire-ravaged town Friday.  

Harper did not specify how much money would be provided but said it would be substantial and would come through the Financial Disaster Assistance Act.

While Harper did not meet with evacuees, he offered his thoughts and prayers to them.

He called the fire a terrible tragedy and, given what he saw Friday in aerial and ground tours with Premier Ed Stelmach, believed it was a miracle everybody got out alive.

"I know municipal officials, provincial officials — those who are charged with getting services up and running and containing the disaster — are working their hearts out," Harper said.

Wildfires destroyed 433 properties in Slave Lake and the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River on Sunday, making the disaster one of the worst in modern Canadian history.

Evacuees get first relief money

The evacuees were left homeless after shifting winds suddenly unleashed the fires on their community of 7,000 people, giving them little warning to get out of their homes.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach speak in front of the gutted Slave Lake town hall on Friday. (CBC)

The government of Alberta began handing out money Friday morning to evacuees to help with immediate housing and financial needs.

Each adult is eligible to receive $1,250 in initial aid, while children under 18 are eligible for $500. Evacuees are getting the money in the form of prepaid debit cards.

"Our priority is people who are relying on evacuee reception centres," said Thomas Lukaszuk, the province's minister of employment and immigration. "We want to help them start building the next phase of their lives as soon as possible."

The aid is appreciated, said evacuee Angela Lindsey at the Edmonton Expo Centre.

"I have prescriptions for my child to fill," she said. 

"And clothes! I'm wearing one of the two outfits I bought. I came out with a pair of shorts on, so I had nothing."

For evacuees who cannot find or afford temporary housing, the province will help place people and cover up to 100 per cent of their housing costs until the end of August.

Grant MacEwan University announced Friday afternoon it is opening its student residence to evacuees for the summer.

Waiting for word

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Crews turn off utilities in a burned-out neighbourhood in Slave Lake, Alta. ((Canadian Press) )

Many people are now waiting in emergency shelters for word on when they can return to their town, but that could be weeks away.

The only activity currently in the community is crews working to restore services and haul away wrecked cars and other debris with track excavators.

Incident commander Len MacCharles said the area was hit by what he would characterize as a firestorm, "the nature of which is unprecedented. The speed it was moving, the heat it was generating, the devastation, is second to none."

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He said the fire threat was so grave at one point that firefighters actually demolished some homes that weren't on fire in order to create a buffer zone.

"Because [firefighters] were making a choice to create a fire break, which unfortunately meant the demolition of some homes, they were able to save many more," MacCharles said. "Tough decisions, but I commend them for the choices they made."

On Thursday, the displaced residents of Slave Lake finally got an idea if their homes had survived the fires. Residents got a first look at maps showing the 374 properties destroyed — and the 52 others damaged — in the community.

In the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River, 59 properties were destroyed and 32 damaged.