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Wildfires force evacuations in Slave Lake, Alberta; several buildings burn to the ground

Smoke billows from fires near Slave Lake, Alberta. For more photos and video of the fires, please click on the picture
Smoke billows from fires near Slave Lake, Alberta. For more photos and video of the fires, please click on the picture

Jill Colton, staff writer

May 17, 2011 — As fires rip through the town of Slave Lake, Alberta, a mandatory evacuation order is in effect. 95 percent of the town has been safely evacuated.

Radio station burns down
Radio station burns down

Slave Lake, Alberta is a community of about 7,000 people and wildfires that ignited over the weekend have destroyed a large portion of the town.

A state of emergency was declared as the fires rapidly spread, engulfing buildings including the town office, library, radio station and the main mall. The hospital was eventually evacuated and patients have been moved to neighbouring cities.

A mandatory evacuation order was put in place and residents were told to flee or face the risk of being arrested. Sadly, some residents won't have anything to go back to once the fires are contained. Slave Lake's Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee confirmed on Monday that half of the homes in the hardest hit area have been damaged or destroyed.

People were initially directed toward large green areas, beaches or large parking lots. But as it became evident that the fire was spreading at a rapid pace they were told to get on the only highway still open at the time. Several roads have been closed including Highway 44 south to Edmonton.

“Travel in and around Slave Lake is restricted right now,” says Cam Traynor with the Government of Alberta. “Only essential firefighters or emergency responder staff are in the town.”

Evacuation centres were set up in Westlock, Athabasca and Edmonton and there are currently no reports of injuries or death.

Transportation is limited across the town
Transportation is limited across the town

There's no sign of signficant rainfall in the Slave Lake forecast, but the strong winds have died down substantially and that could help slow down the spread of fires.

Additional equipment and approximately 200 firefighters from B.C. and Ontario are expected to arrive by Tuesday to help contain fires throughout the province. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach visited the fire site on Monday and assures that the immediate needs of residents in Slave Lake will be met. He also spoke to Prime Minister Stephen Harper who said additional federal resources would be made available if required.

Slave Lake was the centre point of a massive forest fire blowup all weekend. Nearly 80 fires were burning Sunday evening, but very few were considered out of control.

By mid afternoon Sunday, there was no evacuation order. At one point, officials were cautiously optimistic thinking that the situation was under control. So what happened?

Mel Knight, an Alberta cabinet minister in charge of forest fire response believes “the winds picked up.” Winds gusted to 100 km/h on Sunday helping to stoke the fast moving flames. The gusts also helped ground the province's water bomber airplanes.

Sources say the cause of the fires are unknown, but dry conditions, high winds and warm weather have acted as the perfect breeding ground for the outbreak.

The Red Cross is providing manpower in the way of volunteers and staff. Hundreds of cots, blankets, personal hygiene kits, clothing, water, food and other basic needs have been provided.

If you are looking for family and friends in the area, you can contact a special Red Cross line set up in the community at 1-800-523-3388 or 1-800-565-4483.

With files from CTV Edmonton, The Globe and Mail and Andrea Stockton

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