It is an agonizing time for thousands of residents forced to flee northern Alberta as they wait to hear when they can go home—and if there is a home to return to—after fires swept the region.
Hardest hit has been the town of Slave Lake, 40 percent of which now lies destroyed. All 7,000 residents have left and are currently in evacuation centres or staying with friends or family.
About 500 people (and 46 animals) had checked into an evacuation shelter at the Edmonton Expo Centre by Tuesday. Other shelters were set up in Athabasca and Westlock to help those who had lost everything.
Lorna Beaver, who is staying at the Expo Centre, was forced to evacuate Slave Lake on Sunday night. She said she had only enough time to grab a few clothes and precious family photos before getting out. She is anxious to get back to her home and evaluate the damage.
“I want to go home and see what the fire has done to the community…yet I don’t. I want to see for myself how it is. I see it on the news, the computer, but I want to see it myself,” she said.
Thank God nobody got hurt. Everybody’s alive, everybody’s together. Material things can be replaced, lives cannot.
Most roads in and around the town remain closed, however, and evacuees are being told its not yet safe to go home as crews continue to put out fire flare-ups and clear widespread destruction. Air quality has significantly deteriorated and water bans remain in effect for the region. Electricity and gas are also not available.
Eighty-seven wildfires are presently raging in Alberta, 23 of which are out of control. Approximately 191,000 hectares have burned. In the Lesser Slave Lake area alone, 17 wildfires are burning out of control. The fires have closed down many roads, rail, and oil operations across northern Alberta.
In addition to Slave Lake, mandatory evacuation orders are in place for Loon River First Nation, Red Earth Creek, Woodland Cree First Nation, and parts of the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River. Northern Sunrise County has issued evacuation advisories for Little Buffalo and Marten Lake.
Bob Boudreau, who was evacuated from Red Earth, says it’s the worst disaster he’s ever seen.
“It’s unbelievable. Thank God nobody got hurt. Everybody’s alive, everybody’s together. Material things can be replaced, lives cannot.”
Alberta has deployed approximately 1,000 firefighters, including 120 who arrived Monday from British Columbia. The province has also deployed 124 helicopters, 20 air tankers, and scores of heavy ground-based machines. Around 85 firefighters from Ontario and 200 additional firefighters from B.C. have arrived in Alberta and are preparing to be deployed.
“It has been heart-wrenching to see how quickly this wildfire moved and the effect it’s had on our community,” Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said in a press release.
“It won’t be safe until critical infrastructure like water, power, gas, telecommunications and health services are in place … and the risk of fire is diminished.”
“As soon as the risk is gone and the infrastructure is in place, we can begin getting people back into the community.”
Pillay-Kinnee visited temporary shelters on Wednesday to speak with displaced residents.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach announced Wednesday that the province has approved an initial allocation of $50 million toward the immediate needs of the evacuees and the rebuilding of Slave Lake and surrounding communities.“The unprecedented wildfire disaster in Slave Lake and the surrounding area has touched all Albertans. This funding is an important first step on the road to rebuilding the community,” he said.
The funding will initially focus on the immediate housing, income support, and other needs of the evacuated residents.