One week after the firestorm, it's still not safe to go back.
The evacuation order in Slave Lake, Alberta, has been extended for another week.
It's being called the largest mass-evacuation in Alberta's history, and one that most people had little warning about.
As a wildfire raged through Slave Lake on Sunday, May 15, at least 7,000 people in the town were told to flee or face the risk of being arrested. By the next day, 95 percent of residents had been safely evacuated.
“It was nerve-wracking because we weren't quite sure what an evacuation notice was,” says Kim Wilde, an evacuee from Slave Lake. “We heard sirens in the southeast quadrant of the town, but we weren't quite sure if that meant to evacuate. But common sense dictated, when you saw that much smoke coming at you, the wise thing was to get out of there.”
“It's scary because we didn't really have time to get anything together,” said Tyler Erickson, another Slave Lake evacuee staying at the Edmonton Exposition building. “Then the winds started blowing towards Slave Lake. We were getting scared and we were starting to pack up. We all looked out the window and there were flames on the tree just across the street on the highway. So, we all started panicking. Couldn't see anything outside, it was so smokey. Had to get in the car; there was a lot of traffic. We're lucky we got out.”
On Thursday, residents learned about the status of their homes. The town released a detailed photographic map, which shows 374 lots that were destroyed by wildfires. Another 52 lots are damaged.
While residents were devastated by the news, Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee says they needed to be informed. The maps were shown to the evacuees that have been staying at temporary shelters in Athabasca, Westlock and Edmonton.
Officials say those that were fortunate to escape damage to their homes will not be allowed to return for several weeks. The town is making progress on restoring power and natural gas, but water supply is expected to take longer.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach on a tour of the fire-ravaged region on Friday and pledged federal government assistance for the wildfire victims.
The Stelmach government has already begun distributing funds to help Slave Lake residents rebuild their lives. On Friday, adult evacuees were each given $1,250 in preliminary aid.
Meanwhile, Red Cross staff and volunteers are working to meet the evacuees' basic needs. Hundreds of cots, blankets, personal hygiene kits, clothing, water, food and other basic needs have been donated.
The embattled community was dealt another blow Friday when a helicopter crashed during a firefighting operation in the area, killing the male pilot. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
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 Alexandra Pope and Lisa Varano