Residents of Slave Lake, Alta., raised questions Tuesday about how little warning they had of the rapidly approaching wildfire that destroyed 40 per cent of their town.
The entire town, located 250 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, was evacuated Sunday when wind-whipped wildfires suddenly turned and blazed through town, destroying more than a third of its homes, along with the town hall and government centre.
Even as the fire approached the town's outer limits, residents weren't hearing anything about a need to evacuate.
"We kept the radio on as long as we could, but it went down, right," said evacuee Brian Wilson. "And they said we were safe."
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.
"It was kind of too late when they called it," evacuee Peter Prosser said. "They should have called it earlier, I think."
"It was just utter chaos. No one knew what to do," Anthony Cyr said. "There was a complete communications breakdown."
Provincial officials said it was impossible to issue a bulletin through Alberta's public warning system because the fire moved too quickly.
"The public warning system is designed to give people a fair amount of lead-time information that will tell them about the hazard and the actions that they can take," said Colin Lloyd, director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency.
The system relies upon local radio stations and the only station in Slave Lake had burned down, Lloyd said.
Police went door-to-door to warn residents. Evacuees said they got information through Facebook and other social media sites.
"We'd check the Facebook quite a bit," Anthony Cyr said. "Cellphones were spotty too, but the texting was working OK."
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach said he wasn't going to second-guess what decisions were made on Sunday, as the priority now is to take care of the thousands of people who were displaced from their homes.
"We'll have time to review who said what and when. The most important thing [is] that lives were saved," Stelmach said.
"Those people that were there evacuating people out of Slave Lake, their homes were burning at the same time. So we'll have time to look back and learn from the situation."
Evacuees may wait 1-2 weeks
The mayor of Slave Lake said residents will not be allowed to return home for at least a week, possibly two.
Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said she understands people who still have a home standing are anxious to return, but services like drinking water need to be in place before residents are allowed back in.
About 100 RCMP officers and Alberta sheriffs are patrolling the town day and night, as well as controlling traffic on the highways leading into the community, said RCMP spokesman Sgt. Patrick Webb, adding that the homes of seven officers were destroyed in the fire.
RCMP also dismissed rumours of looting in the town.
"That is simply not true," said RCMP spokesman Sgt. Tim Taniguchi. "We've had three complaints of property-related offences and we have responded accordingly."
On Tuesday afternoon, conditions prompted the Alberta government to issue a provincewide fire ban.
There are 100 forest fires burning across central and northern Alberta Tuesday — 23 of them out of control — and evacuation alerts are in place for more than a half-dozen small communities in the Slave Lake region.
Forest fires north of Fort McMurray forced the evacuation of 2,000 oil workers from the area on Monday.
While gusting winds continue to drive the fires, both wind and temperatures are expected to turn in the favour of firefighters, said wildfire information officer Rob Harris.
Diminishing winds, cooler temperatures, rising humidity and possible rainfall will help battle the more than 100,000 hectares currently burning in the province — more area than burned all of last year, he said.
However forecasts include thunderstorms, so firefighters are bracing for more lightning-caused fires over the next few days, said Harris.
About 400 firefighters from British Columbia and Ontario are joining more than 1,000 Alberta firefighters already on the ground.
Fifty-seven firefighters from Edmonton's fire department also joined in the effort, including district fire Chief Robert D'Aoust.
A visibily emotional D'Aoust said the scene he first encountered was both shocking and heart-wrenching.
"Just how you feel. People. What they're losing," he said.
The citizens of Slave Lake describe their experiences and fears in the aftermath of the horrific fire.
Will our community still exist?
"We are all very traumatized by what has happened and wonder what will happen to the community that was once our home. Will our friends who lost their homes (and there are many) return? Will the community that we have considered our home still exist?" —Teacher Len Ramsey. Read more.
All of a sudden …
"We were there the whole time the fire was going, all through the weekend. We had fires burning on both sides. It was burning and coming from the west mostly. All of a sudden a fire broke out on the east of us too." — Forklift driver David Leighton. Read more.
Compiling list of destroyed homes
Calgary fire department sent 116 firefighters and about a dozen pieces of equipment to help mainly with fires in Slave Lake, spokesman Brian McAsey told CBC News Tuesday.
He said the fires in the town of Slave Lake are under control, and the job now included compiling a list of homes and businesses that had been damaged.
People in evacuation shelters in Athabasca, Westlock and Edmonton are being told it will be at least three or four days before they get back to the town to see what is left.
Jaqueline Robinson, who was one of the last people to leave Slave Lake, spent Monday night with her children at a shelter in the Westlock, Alta., community hall, one of three shelters set up by the provincial government.
"It was like something off a movie," she told CBC News. "It was creepy. We went and checked just to see, just to make sure our house was still up. So far, it's still up."
Relief officials have been overwhelmed by the number of donations they've been receiving. 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.
"The Red Cross will then make every effort to procure new, safe, and standardized items and goods which are needed by evacuees," a news release said.
"The Red Cross makes every effort to keep administration costs for disaster responses to under seven per cent of funds raised."
Information on how to donate can be found on the website of the Canadian Red Cross.
On Monday, officials in Westlock asked people to hold off for at least a day until they could assess the amount of goods they've received.
Cash and cheque donations are still being accepted at the Westlock Community Hall and Town Office.
The evacuation centre at the Edmonton Expo Centre is not currently accepting donations of food or clothing.
|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|