The northern Alberta town of Slave Lake is partially in ruins after a devastating, fast-moving wildfire caught community officials off guard.
The damage is catastrophic. Hundreds of homes, churches and businesses have been destroyed. So too has the town hall, library and radio station. The power is out, cellphone service has been spotty, and 7,000 residents were forced to flee through a single road, the only highway open as fires rage on all sides.
Fire crews had little control – they managed to save the south part of the town, but remained at the mercy of strong winds, gusting up to 100 kilometres an hour.
“It’s extremely devastating, our loss. It’s difficult to articulate,” Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said late Sunday. “A lot of things we’re battling now.”
There were no reports of injuries.
What’s perhaps most striking, however, is the pace at which the catastrophe took hold. By mid-afternoon Sunday, there was no evacuation order. In fact, officials were cautiously optimistic, even as two wildfires burned on the outskirts of town.
“We kind of thought the thing was getting under control,” said Mel Knight, an Alberta cabinet minister in charge of forest-fire response who was in Slave Lake Sunday.
“What happened [Sunday] afternoon is the winds picked up.”
The strong gusts delivered the community a double blow. The winds stoked fast-moving flames, which jumped two highways before reaching Slave Lake. Meanwhile, they also grounded the province’s water bomber airplanes, a key part of fire defence.
“The timing, it just occurred so fast. A difficulty communicating – all our firefighters and resources were actively fighting fires in numerous areas around our community,” Ms. Pillay-Kinnee said. “It just happened so quickly.”
Over the next four hours, the fire spread almost unchallenged. That’s when the town fell into a communications meltdown – critically, the radio station, which had been broadcasting evacuation notices, lost its power and went off the air, hours before burning down itself.
At least 30 per cent of the town has burned down, the mayor said Sunday.
That whole scenario sounds like some isht out of the Old Testament… or a Steven King novel about the end of days.