Slave Lake evacuees begin return

Workers considered essential to getting Slave Lake operational are being moved back with their families into the fire-ravaged town.

Workers considered essential to getting Slave Lake operational are being moved back with their families into the fire-ravaged town.

The rest of the evacuees could start returning in days, possibly as soon as the weekend, said one municipal official.

It's part of a staged re-entry plan announced Wednesday to get evacuees back into their homes.

"I must stress that we are still under a state of local emergency and this is not a general call for people to return to our community," said Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee. "We still have a tremendous amount of work to do between now and then."

All 7,000 residents fled the town on May 15, just moments before a raging wildfire blazed through Slave Lake, levelling about a third of the homes and businesses.

News of a staged return came as a relief to the evacuees who have been staying in Athabasca.

"It's great," said Grace Waddell. "A lot of work to be done when we get back."

"Everybody's kind of anxious to get going and to be home," Elaine Engebretson said. "Yeah, to get our town going again."

Plan broken into phases

The plan consists of four phases.

The first — the recovery of critical infrastructure — is complete. That means power, telephone service and natural gas are fully restored to all areas not damaged by fire. Water service is also restored, though a boil order is still in effect.

Grace Waddell was among thousands of Slave Lake, Alta., residents forced to flee their homes on May 15. (CBC)

Police and fire services have also been restored.

The second phase — staffing of essential services — is under way. Essential service workers include health-care providers, utility personnel, protective and fire service personnel and local government and community officials.

The third phase is to get key businesses reopened with the final stage bringing all evacuees home.

"You cannot underestimate the level of detail and necessary checks that are needed to begin the re-entry process," said Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Hector Goudreau.

"The phased-in approach allows us to ensure that the appropriate level of support is ready and available for the safe return of residents to their community."

Over the past two days, 163 residents toured the remains of their burned out neighbourhoods on buses provided by the town, but a lack of further interest cancelled more tours.

Evacuees who have lost their homes are being moved out of shelters and into temporary housing.

Provincial housing officials with help from rental companies and post-secondary education institutions have accumulated an inventory of about 1,400 housing units for evacuees.

The province also issued financial assistance cheques — one-time payments of $1,250 for each adult and $500 for each child — to about 9,700 people since Friday.

Meanwhile, the fire situation across the province continues to improve as rain and humidity helps the 2,000 firefighters.

As of late Tuesday, 43 fires were burning across Alberta, of which four are considered out of control.

Since the start of April, Alberta has recorded approximately 511 wildfires, which have burned more than 3,300 square kilometres.