Residents of Slave Lake, Alberta had to literally run for their lives yesterday when a wildfire firefighters were battling just to the south was suddenly whipped up by wind and then plummeted on the town, quickly overwhelming it and sending the community into panicked retreat.
The town of 7,000 people is located about 250 km north of Edmonton. Dry conditions have been feeding forest fires all across the province for several days. The fire that engulfed Slave Lake seemed under control at first, something to keep an eye on but enough of a non-event that there was no evacuation order as late as Sunday afternoon.
However, when the winds suddenly picked up the fire rapidly jumped two highways and caught inside the town limits — and the firefighters were unable to use water bombers, a crucial part of their fire defense system, because of that same wind.
With firefighter resources spread thin across multiple fires, the fire inside the town split and encircled the perimiter, spreading nearly unchecked. As the flames surrounded the community, residents were landlocked by fire until officials were able to open one road late at night, a dirt road that would take residents east and away from the flames. Officials hurriedly released a mandatory evacuation order and the people of Slave Lake left their homes, community centers, mall parking lots and all of the other locations where they had taken refuge, unsure of what they would find upon their return. Neighbouring towns have set up temporary evacuation centers to house the refugees.
This morning, the Mayor of Slave Lake gave the news: fully one third of the town is burned to the ground, with homes, the city hall, library and radio station among the buildings lost. The southeast side of the town bore the brunt of the damage. Miraculously, no fatalities have been reported. The shellshocked residents are not permitted to return yet, due to lack of power, gas and potable water. Those who saw the fire have been submitting incredible photos of the fire and aftermath to many media outlets including the Edmonton Journal.
The Canadian Red Cross has deployed teams to assist the evacuated residents of Slave Lake.
Wildfires continue to burn across Alberta, with many other towns under evacuation orders. This may not be the last story of destruction.
Photo: alexindigo on flickr