Slave Lake evacuees optimistic after touring burned town

Residents of Slave Lake, Alta., knew there would be shock and tears when they boarded buses to briefly return to their fire-ravaged town.

Residents of Slave Lake, Alta., knew there would be shock and tears when they boarded buses on Monday to briefly return to their fire-ravaged town. But it was the optimism they felt by the end of the trip that caught them by surprise.

"It made me feel much better," said Brenda Derkoch after stepping off the bus that returned to the evacuation centre in Athabasca.

"My house is gone, all my neighbours' houses are gone, but we have all our schools. We have the hospital. We have so many people out there working so hard for us," she added.

Still, seeing the smoldering, levelled wasteland the fire left behind was tough.

"It looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it," said Gerry Gliege. "It's hard to even recognize where your own place is."

One week after a wildfire blazed through the town reducing a third of its buildings to ash and rubble, some 250 people boarded buses to briefly return to the area for a first-hand look at the charred remains.

A total of five buses from three different evacuation centres made the trip to Slave Lake on Monday, and another 250 people will be allowed to make the trip Tuesday.

Residents of Slave Lake board a bus in Athabasca, Alta., Monday, to tour their fire ravaged community. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)
No one was allowed to get out of the bus during the tours.

"As we started to get through town, the tears started coming. As we were getting through neighbourhoods, people were hugging each other and tears were flowing and they were holding each other for a few minutes. Then they'd wipe off the tears and stand up and look out the window and have another look," Dave Derkoch said.

The decision to allow hundreds of evacuees to briefly return to their devastated neighbourhoods came Sunday night as tensions were running high among the displaced community over when they would be allowed to return to the town.

The province has extended the evacuation order for at least another week on Saturday, saying it would be unsafe for people to return until hot spots are extinguished, and every property has been inspected for possible gas leaks and other damage.

After seeing the town, those who took the tour say they now understand why they won't be allowed back any time soon.

"I can understand it," said Brenda Derkoch. "We just can't have children in there."

As the bus drove through the town, the passengers said they opened windows whenever they saw a fire or emergency crew so they could call out thanks and wave greetings.

The province said the decision on who got to go on the buses was left for the evacuees to sort out themselves. The routes were published on the government's website beforehand, and it was hoped that priority would go to those who knew their homes had been destroyed.

A faith-based representative accompanied the passengers on the buses. Media were not allowed on the tours.

Carlee Derkoch, 11, hugs her father in Athabasca, Alta., Monday, prior to him boarding a bus to tour their fire damaged neighbourhood in Slave Lake. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)
A decision on whether to have additional bus tours beyond Tuesday will be made later, the province said.

Support for the more than 7,000 Slave Lake evacuees has poured in from all over Alberta. Social networks were abuzz during the Victoria Day long weekend with communities announcing yard sales and other fundraisers, including a bikini car wash, to help those in need. Kids were also trying to help, setting up lemonade stands and running toonie drives.

The Alberta government said that as of Sunday night there were 44 wildfires in the province, eight of which remain out of control. More than 2,000 personnel are fighting the fires, including nearly 500 firefighters from British Columbia and Ontario.

So far, there has been only one death associated with the fires. A helicopter that was battling a blaze at the summer village of Canyon Creek crashed into Lesser Slave Lake on Friday. The pilot was pronounced dead at the scene. The Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash.