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Slave Lake city hall burns. Photo taken by local radio station 92.7 Lake FM which has also burned down. (Courtesy 92.7 Lake FM)
Slave Lake city hall burns. Photo taken by local radio station 92.7 Lake FM which has also burned down. (Courtesy 92.7 Lake FM)

Change in winds caused chaos for fire-devastated Slave Lake, Alta. Add to ...

Flames continued to flicker into the nighttime skies above Slave Lake after a devastating, fast moving wildfire caught community officials off guard.

The damage is catastrophic. Hundreds of homes, churches and businesses in the northern Alberta town have been destroyed. So too has the town hall and radio station. The power’s out, cellphone service has been spotty, and 7,000 residents have been forced to flee through a single road, the only highway open as fires rage on all sides.

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As dusk fell Sunday, fires continued to burn within the city and around it. Fire crews had little control – they had 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, adding: “A lot of things we’re battling now.”

There were no reports of injuries.

About 70 firefighters from the Edmonton area have headed north to assist in the fight, and provincial officials say equipment and approximately 200 firefighters from B.C. and Ontario are expected to arrive by Tuesday to help.

What’s perhaps most striking, however, is the pace at which the catastrophe took hold. By mid-afternoon, 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 this 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.

The mayor said at least 30 per cent of the town has burned down. Amid the chaos as night fell Sunday, no one could know with certainty.

At first, residents were trapped – fires had closed all the roads out of town. “We are landlocked at the moment,” Ms. Pillay-Kinnee said in a text message just after 6 p.m.

But later Sunday evening, around 7:30 p.m. local time, officials opened Highway 2, which would take residents east through a highway and dirt road, away from the flames.

“Mandatory evacuation,” Ms. Pillay-Kinnee said at 10 p.m., at which point her town’s website had gone updated for hours amid the chaos.

It’s not clear how many people have left town so far.

However, one thing is certain – Slave Lake, as residents knew it, is a thing of the past. Thousands have fled to nearby communities, grabbing precious valuables and unsure when – or to what – they’ll return.

“The smoke is terrifying, black and just billowing. I called everyone I could get a hold if and asked them to leave if they hadn't already,” Slave Lake resident Cindy Martin, 27, who fled with her daughter and three cats, said in an e-mail. “I'm very much in panic. At this point even if our home is OK, there will not be much of the community to go back to. Who even knows if we will have a job to go back to? Our entire lives were in Slave and now it will never be the same and the fire doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon.”

Many questioned the delays in responding, wondering why a voluntary evacuation order wasn’t put into place earlier in the day.

“Nobody was told of the possibility of being in danger. The winds shifting was always a possibility,” said Mandy Jeworski, 27. She and her fiance fled their home in Widewater, west of Slave Lake, after an evacuation order much earlier in the day. “I don’t know what’s happened to our house. I can only hope it’s not completely destroyed. And if it is, we’re safe and I know we’re going to be OK.”

As night fell, work continued. RCMP were leading the evacuation, while town officials tried to co-ordinate the logistics of a mass evacuation – bringing in, for instance, buses to evacuate those whose cars didn’t have enough gas to reach the nearby towns. They did it all without power. Community centres were opened in nearby Westlock and Athabasca to handle evacuees.

Slave Lake was the epicentre of a forest fire outbreak that swept through the province on the weekend, driven by high winds. About 80 fires were burning Sunday evening, a few dozen of them out of control, Mr. Knight said. Many of them were started within the past day or two. The sources are unknown, but dry conditions, high winds and warm weather all helped flames spread.

It wasn’t confined to the Slave Lake area. A lodge and trailer park were evacuated in Wood Buffalo, the municipality that includes Fort McMurray and the oil sands, but RCMP officials said late Sunday that oil sands manufacturers weren’t yet affected.

“It looks ominous around town,” Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake said. “When you’re watching what’s happening in Slave Lake, it really makes you pay a lot more attention.”

Meanwhile, two hours northwest of Slave Lake, several small aboriginal communities had been evacuated. The nearby site of an oil spill cleanup, near Little Buffalo, Alta., was also evacuated. The site will stay empty, and cleanup efforts idle, until a state of emergency is lifted, said officials from Plains Midstream Canada, which owned the pipeline that broke on April 28, triggering Alberta’s largest oil spill in over 30 years.

But the damage across those other regions won’t likely compare to what’s left of Slave Lake.

Just before noon on Sunday, Ms. Pillay-Kinnee had acknowledged the unpredictability her community, then without an evacuation order, was facing.

“It's incredible how quickly things can change,” she said.

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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