Inside Slave Lake: 'It looked like a nuclear bomb hit it'
About 250 residents of the devastated Alberta town of Slave Lake got a chance to look at the remains of their hometown Monday, and there were conflicting emotions about what they saw.
"It made me feel much better," Brenda Derkoch said after getting off a bus that toured the town.
"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."
Others said the devastation was hard to take in.
"It looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it," Gerry Gliege said. "It's hard to even recognize where your own place is."
Five buses, carrying 50 passengers each, departed the evacuation centres in Edmonton, Athabaska and Westlock earlier Monday to tour the town that was hit by a wildfire one week ago.
No one was allowed to disembark from the buses during the tour, for safety reasons.
"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.
Much of the town was burned in the blaze and many evacuees had been left wondering whether their homes are still standing. Tensions ran high during a weekend meeting as residents complained at the rate of information being given out by officials.
About 7,000 people were displaced by the wildfires.
Those who have lost their homes or businesses were given the first opportunity to return to the town.
Those on the tour had about two hours to survey the burned town and nearby communities to get a sense of the scale of the damage.
Another 250 residents will be taken on a tour of the town on Tuesday, said Tom Neufeld, a spokesperson for the province's emergency operations centre.
He said the government will then re-evaluate the situation to determine whether further tours are feasible.
"Ideally, we'd have more people going up. But right now the safety of residents, and putting out fires and making sure the recovery effort is not disrupted is really paramount," Neufeld told The Canadian Press from Edmonton.
No one under 18 is being allowed on the buses, and no members of the media will be granted spots on the tour.
Officials decided on Sunday to allow residents to tour the town, as emotions ran high among evacuees wondering about the extent of the damage.
Little information has been provided as to which sections of town were destroyed, and which were spared.
The province has extended the evacuation order for at least another week, due to remaining hot spots, air quality concerns and possible gas leaks.
The Alberta government said this weekend there were 53 wildfires in the province, 10 of which were considered to be out of control.
More than 2,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, including nearly 500 firefighters from British Columbia and Ontario.
Though no one was killed in the Slave Lake fire, a pilot was killed battling a blaze at Canyon Creek when his helicopter crashed into Lesser Slave Lake on Friday.
The cause of the crash is being investigated.
With files from The Canadian Press