Canada — Hot spots and other safety concerns will keep residents out of Slave Lake, Alta. for at least another week, while federal investigators say the wildfire situation may interfere with their probe into the crash of a helicopter that was battling the blazes.
The Alberta government announced in a news release on Saturday that the evacuation order for Slave Lake was being extended for another seven days, stressing it was still not safe to return following the fire that wiped out a third of the town almost a week ago.
Even allowing people to return to look at their homes, or pick up personal belongings, is still unsafe.
“Every property has to be inspected for gas leaks, checked for structural damage and health hazards, in addition to ongoing work to put out fire hot spots,” the release stated.
The province said the wildfire in Slave Lake has so far burned over 4,500 hectares, and was still out of control as of Saturday afternoon. It was one of 53 wildfires burning in the province, 10 of which were out of control.
John Cottreau, a spokesperson for the Transportation Safety Board, said the fire situation could make it difficult to find a spare helicopter necessary to lift the chopper that crashed into Lesser Slave Lake on Friday out of the water.
The pilot of the chopper, which was engaged in fighting a fire at the summer village of Canyon Creek, was declared dead at the scene after being pulled from the wreckage and frigid water by rescuers.
Cottreau said the crashed helicopter must be loaded onto a truck and driven into the safety board’s regional facilities in Edmonton as part of the investigation. He said divers have been contracted, and that the next step would be to find a helicopter that could be spared from the firefighting effort in order to lift the wreckage from the lake.
“It won’t be out of the water until tomorrow (Sunday) at dinner time,” Cottreau said on Saturday afternoon, noting the fire situation was “certainly not helping.”
“Everybody’s 100 per cent in the weeds right now and our guys are just quietly trying to conduct this investigation,” Cottreau noted.
The Bell 212 craft is owned by Campbell Helicopters of Abbotsford, B.C., and was working on contract with the Alberta government to fight several wildfires in the area.
The dead pilot’s name has not yet been released.
The crash came shortly after Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Ed Stelmach toured the stricken community on Friday.
The province noted Saturday that many displaced residents of Slave lake were moving from evacuation centres into hotel rooms, thanks to a financial assistance program.
The Alberta government has announced it will help people who can’t find or afford temporary housing and will cover their costs until the end of August.
A government assistance program will also provide adults with $1,250 each to spend as they see fit, while each child will get $500.
But it’s still a grind for evacuees, who have no idea when they’ll be allowed to go home.
Evacuee Crystal Attilon says she’s sick and tired of eating donated food and wearing donated clothes while she waits in a motel room.
Although tensions are high among evacuees, some say they are grateful for the money the Alberta government has already started to pay out.
“I have prescriptions for my children to fill and we need clothing,” said Angela Lindsey, who is staying at an evacuation centre in Edmonton. “I came out with a pair of shorts on.”
Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said the government understands the fire refugees have been through a lot. He said the assistance programs were rolled out as quickly as they could be organized.
“Hopefully to some degree this will ease some of the suffering that these individuals have gone through,” he said. “You are starting your life from scratch. The fact that some of them are frustrated I empathize with them.”