Canada — Extensive damage is being reported Monday in a northern Alberta town ravaged by a wildfire that has forced thousands to evacuate.
Late Sunday, a wind-whipped wildfire from Slave Lake’s southern limits set the town hall ablaze, along with businesses, the library, many homes and the local radio station.
“A lot of people have lost their homes; that’s the really, really terrible thing here,” said Duncan MacDonnell, a spokesman with the Alberta government on Monday morning.
The province has called in 200 additional firefighters from B.C. and Saskatchewan to help quell the fires driving thousands of people from their homes in and around Slave Lake.
“We’ve got 1,000 of our own people on the ground and 200 more coming in. We’ve asked for additional help from out-of-province, I believe we’ll have some from B.C. And Saskatchewan in today,” Sustainable Resource Minister Mel Knight said after leaving a meeting in Premier Ed Stelmach’s office early Monday morning.
“We have a very, very serious situation in Alberta. Over 100 fires burning and a number of them out of control,” he said.
North of Fort McMurray, two large oilsands operations have been evacuated as an out-of-control forest fire in that region approached.
Alberta Sustainable Resource Development reported Monday a 25,000-plus hectare wildfire is still out of control in the Richardson backcountry area and burning across the Athabasca River. Workers report Canadian Natural Resources oilsands operation have been evacuated as a precaution.
In Slave Lake a town of about 7,000 people that was under a mandatory evacuation on Monday. Cam Traynor, a spokesman with the Alberta government, said about 90 per cent of the residents had been removed.
There were no fatalities or injuries resulting from the fire.
“Only essential firefighters are in town,” Traynor said. “And emergency personnel are remaining in the town. We do know that there is extensive damage, and key infrastructure has been severally damaged by fire.”
About 700 people from Slave Lake were at the Athabasca Regional Multiplex. Despite an Alberta government release saying this site was full, Debbie Wood, with Athabasca’s Family and Community Support Services, said there was room for more.
She said most people arrived, via their own vehicles, between 10:30 and 11 p.m. local time Sunday.
“It’s been a long night,” she said Monday.
It was clear that much of Slave Lake has been devastated, but Wood said she has been hearing conflicting reports from some of the evacuees.
“We’ve e heard everything from 30 per cent (of the town had burnt down) to it’s gone,” she said. “So we’re not even sure what the right information is.”
Karen Maggrah, an employee with the Town of Slave Lake, was among the evacuees staying in Athabasca. She said she helped officials evacuate neighbouring areas throughout Sunday afternoon before it became clear her town itself was in peril.
When power went out and the radio station stopped broadcasting updates, many residents fled, she added. “I think a lot of people just grabbed their campers and went,” Maggrah said. “Houses were going up.”
Most residents, it seems, had time enough only to grab whatever essentials were nearby before fleeing the inferno.
“We just dropped everything,” said Verna Irvine, 63, Maggrah’s mother. “I’ve got on what I’m wearing. I have nothing.”
Volunteers at the Athabasca site were busy shuttling in blankets and towels from the nearby hospital. Hot food and coffee was offered, and hot showers, diapers and pain pills were available.
Volunteers also organized shuttles to take evacuees to nearby pharmacies and stores to pick up other necessities.
“Thousands of us were so fortunate to get out. And with the courtesy everyone showed us, it made a bad situation better,” Irvine said.”There’s always a silver lining under every cloud.”
The town first issued an evacuation order Sunday evening, but with fires threatening the highways, they urged to make their way to safe spots in the town, such as big parking lots at retail centres and beaches.
Late in the evening, city officials forced the entire town to leave, prompting a convoy of vehicles snaking east on the only open highway.
Some of the residents who made it out of town found shelter in Westlock, Alta., where they opened a community hall, according to the local radio station.
The fire that forced the mass evacuation started just east of the town, said Rob Harris, a fire information officer with Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development. The blaze spread quickly, aided by winds that blew as strong as 100 kilometres per hour.
As the fire raged, it split in two and circled the town, Harris said.
The fire cut off Highway 2 and Highway 88, two major roads that lead out of Slave Lake.
Weather conditions were challenge across the province on Sunday with wind gusts, high temperatures and little moisture in the air.
“Our crews are fighting not only fire, but weather,” Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight said on Sunday.
MacDonnell said there are 116 wildfires burning in the province, about one-third of them considered out of control. He said 69 of those fires were new within the past 24 hours.
MacDonnell said conditions were expected to improve Monday, with winds weakening.