Slave Lake residents face more uncertainty
Published Tuesday, May 17, 2011 10:04PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 4:47AM EDT
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has put a fire ban in place across his province as dry, windy conditions have whipped up more than a 100 wildfires.
The move comes as thousands of residents of Slave Lake, who were forced to flee as their town burned, were told they'd have to wait until at least the weekend before they are allowed to return and see if their homes are still standing.
"We're working extremely hard -- and so is the town of Slave Lake -- to establish those conditions where people can return," Colin Lloyd, the head of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said.
"We just don't have a timeline on that at the moment."
The RCMP indicated residents might be able to check out the damage to the town by the weekend at the earliest.
Doug and Sharon Horner left within minutes of an evacuation order last Sunday. Now they wait to see if there's anything left to return to.
"This is just like a dream, a movie," said Sharon Horner. "You see this stuff on TV and your heart goes out to other people going through this."
The couple is now living in an RV in the parking lot of an evacuation centre.
Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said it may be as long as a few weeks before residents can return, but officials are trying to get word to people whose homes have been damaged or destroyed.
"It is a priority. I understand the frustration of residents," Pillay-Kinnee said.
Duncan MacDonnell of Alberta Sustainable Resource Development said the threat of more destruction in Slave Lake is quite real.
"The fires are still burning," he told CTV News Channel Tuesday afternoon. "We finally got a chance to get up and get a good look at the boundaries without all the heavy smoke in the way, so we have a better idea of how large they are."
The RCMP say that the town is without stable power, water and other utilities.
All 7,000 residents have been ordered out and are staying on evacuation centres in Alberta, as far away as Edmonton.
There has been an outpouring of support from surrounding communities, with residents organizing charity drives and delivering supplies.
Luc Gascon, who lives 350 kilometres away from Slave Lake in St. Paul, helped bring three trailers full of clothing and dry goods.
He said it was "five guys that got together yesterday morning and decided to do something."
Meanwhile, Firefighters from British Columbia and Ontario are descending on Alberta today, to join the approximately 1,000 firefighters, 100 helicopters and 20 air tankers already battling blazes across the province.
The Calgary Fire Department's public information officer Brian McAsey says fire crews are doing their best to douse hidden fires and restore basic services to the town.
Some electrical service has been restored, as have some communications towers, but McAsey said there's still no potable water there.
"So you can imagine if we had everybody return to town ... it would be an incredible feat for us to be able to manage that and it simply can't be done while we're doing these fire operations," he told CTV News Channel.
Praising the patience and resilience of the town's evacuees, McAsey said, "We're going to have to ask them to still wait some more time and to put their faith in us that we're going to restore their town back to them."
But the firefighting efforts are small comfort to the community's population of 7,000 -- all of whom were evacuated on short notice as the wind-whipped wildfires began consuming the town on Sunday.
Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the government is ready to lend financial assistance.
"I think it's very important for individuals affected by flooding or fire that the province responds quickly and therefore, it's very important the government steps in and meets its obligations . . . in order to ensure the province has the money and they are not in a difficult financial situation," he said.
Residents struggle for information
Trucks and vans full of donations continue to pour in for the displaced Slave Lake residents.
Insurance providers were on scene at evacuations centres Tuesday, helping people begin the process of submitting their claims.
Slave Lake resident Erin Olde's family is in Edmonton, where they're staying with her in-laws.
In an interview Tuesday morning, Olde described her struggle to maintain a brave face in light of the overwhelming uncertainty about what the future holds for her two-year-old daughter and one-year old son.
"We're not doing so well, but for the sake of our children we're holding as much together as possible," Olde told CTV's Canada AM, suggesting the experience has already exacted a lasting toll on her psyche.
"My whole thought process has changed," she said. "There's nothing you can plan for now. Like where we're gonna go, what we're gonna do, is the town going to rebuild?
"When you don't have answers there's so much speculation it just festers and gets worse, you know."
Addressing the worrying rumour that the whole town had burned to the ground, Pillay-Kinnee told The Canadian Press the situation was not that dire.
Although the fire's effects are "totally devastating," she said the town's hospital, police station and schools are still standing.
Reporting from an evacuation centre in Athabasca where 900 Slave Lake evacuees have found temporary shelter, CTV's Janet Dirks said as many as 900 homes may have been destroyed by the wildfire.
"It was really impossible to tell," she said, describing what she saw of the town's charred remains during a media tour on Monday.
"It was very hard to recognize anything in those neighbourhoods. We saw smouldering chimneys, we saw lawn ornaments melted, some wrought iron furniture melted," she added.
Slave Lake evacuee Byron Kashuba says the photographs he's seen of his home town are indeed shocking.
"It's like a big hand came down and took a big chunk of our town away. It's very catastrophic and it's hard to believe," he told Canada AM in an interview from Edmonton.
Despite the devastation, he's hoping to return home to Slave Lake as soon as he can.
"It's been my home for 23 years," he said. "If my home's there, I'm going to help my neighbours build theirs and I'm sure everybody's going to do likewise. We basically have to band together and continue on."
Natasha Chiam is an Edmonton resident who, along with a group of self-professed 'Twitter moms', has already been inspired to help. Anyone wanting to donate cash should go to the Red Cross, Chiam told Canada AM Tuesday, explaining that the Facebook group she's helped create is a means for people to donate the "comforts of home."
"There's an immediate need for people who basically left their house with less than a backpack on their back," she said. "These are families with young children, so we just wanted to get what we could together for them."
According to the latest Alberta government bulletin issued late Monday night, there are more than 100 wildfires burning across the province, 23 of which are out of control. Fifteen of those are in the Slave Lake area.
The largest include a wildfire east of the town that's already burned 20 square kilometres and another to the south that's scorched a 150-square kilometre area.
Besides the mass evacuation from Slave Lake, which Alberta cabinet minister Thomas Lukaszuk said is the largest single-day displacement of Albertans in the province's history, evacuation orders are also in effect for Loon Lake in the Red Earth Creek area and Chisholm southeast of Slave Lake.
Multiple forest fires north of Fort McMurray have also seen the evacuation of about 2,000 oil workers.
Evacuation advisories have also been issued for Little Buffalo and Martin Lake in the Municipal District of Northern Sunrise.
With files from CTV's Janet Dirks, Sarah Galashan, and files from The Canadian Press