Nature's 'worst curveball' imperils fire-ravaged town
Published Monday, May 16, 2011 10:53PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 4:46AM EDT
In what's been called the largest-ever mass evacuation in Alberta history, thousands of Slave Lake residents are waiting to learn if their homes have been destroyed by a wildfire that has razed much of the northern Alberta town.
At least 7,000 people have been forced from their homes, and fire crews are struggling against destructive flames fanned by high winds that threaten to do even more damage.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach visited the town on Monday and said that he has directed key agencies to meet the short-term needs of evacuees.
"This is probably the worst curve ball nature has ever thrown to us," the premier said.
Necessities like blankets and cots were being provided for locals forced from their homes, the premier said, and he added that makeshift hospitals would be set up in trailers in areas where people needed medical attention.
Stelmach said he had spoken to the prime minister, and the two leaders spoke about securing additional federal resources for fire victims.
Brian Hay was among the thousands of residents forced to flee Slave Lake on the weekend, after high winds pushed a raging wildfire straight into the town where some 7,000 people live.
A day after fleeing Slave Lake with his wife and two children, Hay has heard conflicting reports about his family home. One person told him his house has burned to the ground, another said it has so far survived the blaze.
"They say 40 per cent of the town has burned," Hay told CTV News Channel in a telephone interview from Boyle, Alta., on Monday.
Many prominent buildings are in ruins in Slave Lake, including the town hall, the local library and the main shopping mall.
Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee has confirmed that a government building has also been destroyed by fire and half the homes in the hardest-hit residential area have been damaged or destroyed.
But the full extent of the devastation will not be known until the blaze can be brought under control.
Local authorities first began battling two separate fires near Slave Lake on Saturday, to the east and south of the town. It was initially believed that the fires could be brought under control.
But a day later, officials called for an evacuation of Slave Lake after a raging fire ripped through the town, fuelled by high winds and dry conditions on the ground.
The Alberta Emergency Management Agency believes 95 per cent of Slave Lake residents have complied with the evacuation order. The RCMP is assisting the remaining residents in getting out.
Fire moved into town quickly
Hay said he was hosting a barbecue in the early hours of Sunday afternoon, but the danger of the approaching fire became quickly apparent as the day went on.
Evacuee Erin Olde said the scene in town was nearly apocalyptic as flames moved in and thousands tried to flee. Everything changed in an instant, as the flames just seemed to arrive without any notice or warning.
"It literally just came -- an hour later and everything in the southeast, where we live, was lost, gone."
As the flames approached, black embers and thick smoke were everywhere, she said.
"It was like snow. Ashes and embers were falling on the roof of our house."
The drive to Edmonton, which usually takes about three hours, took upwards of six hours because of bumper-to-bumper traffic
"It was hard to get out," she said.
CTV's Janet Dirks said that the situation remains very "volatile," with high winds whipping through the area and threatening to spread flames to other areas of the town.
Reporters were given a brief media tour of the carnage, and the level of total destruction is incredible in some parts of Slave Lake.
"It was quite shocking," said Dirks, noting that homes and neighbourhoods were completely wiped out. "You would never know that those residences were even residences."
Officials are now piecing together what exactly occurred, and premier Stelmach has said that nature threw a "curveball" during critical moments Sunday.
With winds topping 100 kilometres per hour, officials suspended water bombing because the swells on Slave Lake were too large to land safely and pick up water. But in the space of an hour, "all heck broke lose" as flames jumped into the town, said Dirks.
The Town of Slave Lake issued a mandatory evacuation order on Sunday, though some residents became confused about how they were supposed to get out of town as police shut down local highways for safety reasons.
A highway was later opened that allowed thousands of residents to escape their hometown and find accommodations between Slave Lake and Edmonton, which lies about 250 kilometres from where the wildfires were raging.
Authorities have not yet identified the cause of the wildfires in Slave Lake, though the weather conditions were cited as the major factor in the spread of the dangerous blazes.
"The weather conditions there are freakish -- the perfect conditions for a firestorm," said Duncan MacDonnell, a spokesperson for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development.
Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources is sending 85 forest firefighters to help out in Alberta, though they are not expected to arrive until Tuesday afternoon. Firefighters from British Columbia are also making their way to Slave Lake.