Fire destroys 40% of Slave Lake

Alberta has called in hundreds of extra firefighters to battle a fire that was still considered out of control after destroying 40 per cent of the town of Slave Lake — and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.

High winds, low humidity challenge firefighting efforts

Alberta has called in hundreds of extra firefighters to battle a fire that was still considered out of control Monday after destroying 40 per cent of the town of Slave Lake — and forcing thousands of people to flee their homes.

Most of the destruction happened in the southeastern section of town, where half the homes were consumed by flames Sunday. The mall, town hall and many downtown businesses were destroyed.

The fire was still considered out of control as of 6 p.m. MT Monday.

Almost all 7,000 residents have been evacuated from the town, hundreds going to evacuation shelters in Athabasca, Westlock and Edmonton.

As of Monday evening, about 800 to 1,000 people were at the Athabasca shelter, 195 were in Edmonton and 46 people were staying in Westlock. Provincial officials said there is room for more people in all three locations.

Premier Ed Stelmach toured the fire zone Monday afternoon. He said the province will help fire victims but that people need to be patient before they return.

"I know it's difficult because everybody's really concerned about their home and whether there's damage, or burnt to the ground and what's salvagable," he said.

"It has to be done orderly, because it is a very large area and we want to make sure that anybody coming back here is safe."

Stelmach struck a task force of governmental ministries and agencies to deal with the immediate needs of the community and to provide support services to the residents of Slave Lake over the coming days, weeks and months.

Stelmach said he spoke with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who offered assistance. Stelmach said provincial employees are at the evacuation centres to get an idea of what sort of help the burned-out residents need.

Reporters were also taken on a tour of the town Monday, where they saw homes burned to their foundations, charred rubble and at least 100 burned-out vehicles.

'Stark and devastating:' mayor

"We are all hanging in there," Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee told CBC News. "We have an incredible crew here working the command centre, mobilizing emergency providers here."

Still, she said, Slave Lake has suffered a huge loss. "It is quite stark and devastating. You know, our firefighters are on the ground now trying to protect what is left in our community."

The town remained cut off from the south by wildfires, a day after two out-of-control blazes forced people to flee and burned out many buildings.

The highways were blocked 70 kilometres south of the town, and highway crews said they will probably be closed for a couple of days.

Driven by southeasterly winds of up to 80 km/h on Sunday, the fires caught nearly everyone in the community by surprise.

"Ten minutes in the town and it was black," said volunteer firefighter Wayne Bacon. "You couldn’t see. People were going out of town like crazy. All four highways were closed. Finally they let us all get out."   

"The heat … we had substantial challenges with loss of power, communication lines going down," said Pillay-Kinnee. "[With] the amount of smoke, it was difficult to see where the fires were, so we had tremendous obstacles effectively managing this."

'The town is gone'

"The town is gone," one woman told CBC News. "There's nothing left. There's places where there should have been houses, and they're gone. We lost everything."

There were no reports of injuries.

Wildfires are burning thousands of hectares of brush in the Slave Lake, Alta., area, with high winds hindering efforts to douse the flames. ((Ian Jackson/Canadian Press))

Slave Lake residents were directed to go to the community hall in Westlock, the Expo Centre at Northlands in Edmonton and the multiplex in Athabasca.

CBC's Michael Dick said one woman at the evacuation centre in Westlock told him she escaped with the moccasins on her feet and the jacket on her back.

Strong, dry winds combined with a lack of precipitation created extreme fire conditions over most of the northern half of Alberta.

Conditions 'incredibly difficult'

"These conditions make it incredibly difficult for firefighters to contain fires quickly," said Rob Harris, Alberta wildfire information officer. 

"The wind compounds the problem we're already experiencing, which is warm, dry temperatures."

There are 115 fires in the province, including 36 considered out of control.

About 1,000 firefighters are currently working on fires, along with 100 helicopters and 20 air tankers. Another 200 firefighters are expected to arrive from British Columbia and Ontario to aid the province.

Brenda White (left) and her friend Mary Brown (centre) were among the thousands of people who fled Slave Lake Sunday night. ((CBC))
Evacuees spent Monday trying to come to grips with what happened.

"Is there a feeling for something like this? We have to believe in the God up above," said Mary Brown, who was taking refuge in Athabasca.

"We had such a good day in church and ... in six hours, everything was taken away from us. So we are trying to cope the best way we know how."

Both Brown and her best friend Brenda White described leaving the town amid heavy smoke and fire.

"I didn't think I was getting out alive," White said. "I honestly didn't for a few minutes." 

White is now living in her RV, which is parked outside the Athabasca Canadian Tire store. She expressed her gratitude for the generosity of the town's residents.

"They brought us water, dog food, baby food, diapers, clothes for the kids," she said. "It's just been unreal. Thank you Athabasca."

Cots were set up inside the Edmonton Expo Centre for Slave Lake evacuees. ((CBC))

Evacuees at the Edmonton Expo Centre had harrowing tales of escape.

Darwin Peequaquat faced flames head-on as he raced his family to nearby Kinuso.

"Driving there, we hit a spot where it was just completely black from smoke and sparks were hitting our truck and just, pretty intense," he said.

As Viola Auger left Slave Lake, she saw her house in flames as the fire swept through her neighbourhood.

"I didn't even tell my kids yet, and I don't know how 'cause that's their home," she said.

Residents reported seeing vehicles exploding as the flames ripped through the various car and outdoor vehicle retailers in town.

"Yamaha — just boom — the quads were just blowing up in there," said Richard Supernant.

By Monday night, officials in Westlock described the number of donations as "overwhelming" and they asked people to hold off for at least a day until they could assess what they have received.

Cash and cheque donations are still being accepted at the Westlock Community Hall and Town Office.

People who wish to help can also make donations through the Canadian Red Cross.


Important numbers

 To donate toiletries, bedding call Edmonton Emergency Relief Services 780-428-4422
 To donate to Red Cross 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