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A massive forest fire stoked by strong winds burnt through the southeast of Slave Lake, Alberta on May 16, 2011. Hundreds of homes were reported lost to the fire. (Jimmy Jeong/www.jimmyshoots.com/Jimmy Jeong for the Globe and Mail)
A massive forest fire stoked by strong winds burnt through the southeast of Slave Lake, Alberta on May 16, 2011. Hundreds of homes were reported lost to the fire. (Jimmy Jeong/www.jimmyshoots.com/Jimmy Jeong for the Globe and Mail)

Frantic Slave Lake residents given little time to flee raging wildfire Add to ...

As the winds picked up, Martine Carifelle had as much notice as anyone.

The mother of four began packing early Sunday afternoon after a warning from her husband, Peter, one of more than 200 people who were holding the line against forest fires advancing on this town of 7,000.

In the late afternoon, however, winds picked up and drove the fire across two highways. Mr. Carifelle sent his wife another warning - take the kids and leave Slave Lake.

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Over the next few hours, fire swept through the town and through her neighbourhood, razing hundreds of homes and businesses in what the province's Premier said is the worst disaster in recent memory.

Shortly after the warning from Mr. Carifelle, a contractor who owns and operates a water truck, Slave Lake began evacuating. But with the power out and radio station offline, word was slow to get out.

"My neighbour didn't think it was that big a deal," Ms. Carifelle said. "There was nobody to notify the people. Nobody to say, 'You have this amount of time.' It was word of mouth."

She packed quickly, taking photos, jewellery and her kids' clothes. Home movies and her wedding dress, she regrets, were left behind.

What followed was a frantic dart back and forth between each end of the northern Alberta town, set in boreal forests on the shores of one of the province's largest lakes. Roads were being closed and reopened every few minutes. She could see her street on fire. Smoke filled the skies and traffic crawled.

In the back of her vehicle, Ms. Carifelle's four children were "traumatized," she said. They asked if daddy was on fire. Her five-year-old daughter thought her school was burning - and the teachers, who the child presumed lived inside, would die. Her oldest son worried about his new bike.

"My mind was just racing - there's got to be a way to get the kids out of here alive," said Ms. Carifelle, 28. With the two out-of-control wildfires blocking roads out for several hours, town officials urged residents to flee to a beach or parking lot. "You kind of can't stop yourself from thinking - if we're trapped, there's nowhere to go."

Ms. Carifelle was among the thousands who eventually fled east along one opened highway. She went to her parents' home near Edmonton.

She and her neighbours won't soon be allowed back.

Much of the town was levelled by a fire that was driven into the southeast by winds gusting to 100 kilometres an hour. Entire subdivisions have been levelled; only the foundations, driveways and frames of vehicles remain. The fires remain a threat, and combined covered an estimated 22,000 hectares Monday evening - well more than the 2,900 at the start of the day.

All told, hundreds of homes, businesses and government buildings - including town hall - were destroyed, Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said.

There were no reported serious injuries or deaths, but the RCMP said it is impossible to be sure without combing the rubble of each home.

"It just happened so fast. It's incredible," the mayor said Monday, surveying the worst-hit subdivision. Small fires flared up throughout the neighbourhood.

About 115 wildfires burned throughout province on Monday, nearly all of them started over the weekend and driven by the high winds. Authorities were prepared and had 900 fire crews in place, but it simply wasn't enough.

"This is probably the worst curveball nature has ever thrown at us in recent memory," Premier Ed Stelmach said in Slave Lake on Monday.

Hundreds of firefighters from across the country were dispatched Monday to help.

Mr. Stelmach defended town officials, who didn't issue an evacuation order throughout Sunday even as fires threatened a handful of nearby hamlets.

"Those were calls made by professionals. This is the result, again, of very, very high winds," he said. Asked if the response was too slow, Mr. Stelmach said it "depends how you measure it. Everyone is safe."

Alex Drummond, a former provincial fire officer now teaching at the University of Alberta, agreed there was little the province could do. It was a bad combination of dry conditions, high wind and budding Aspen trees, which are at their most flammable point of the season.

"You had all the conditions exactly right for this explosive [fire] behaviour," Mr. Drummond said.

It will be "more than just a few days" before residents can return to evacuated Slave Lake, Mr. Stelmach said. "It has to be done orderly. It's a very large area. We have to make sure anyone coming back is safe."

Ms. Carifelle doesn't know when she'll be back. Her husband is sending occasional updates - including a photo, sent Monday morning, of their home, still standing. The fire stopped in the family's backyard, but it's not out yet.

They plan to return, and hope their neighbours will, too.

"We're a big family in Slave Lake," she said. "I'm just hopeful we're going to band together."







Town under siege

Location: On the eastern shore of Lesser Slave Lake, surrounded by boreal forest, 250 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Population: 7,031

Economy: Oil and gas is a major industry in the area, with the Peace River oil-sands deposits north and west of town. Forestry is important as well - the region accounts for nearly a third of all timber harvested in the province. There is also a local tourist trade, with campgrounds and sandy beaches outside of town.

History: After David Thompson explored the area in 1799, several fur-trading posts were built around the lake. A town named Sawridge grew near the spot where the Lesser Slave River meets the lake. After it was largely destroyed by a flood in 1935, residents relocated to the site of the current town.

Largest employers: Aspen Regional Healthcare Centre; Town of Slave Lake

Average home price: $310,000

Schools: 5

Colleges: 1

Adrian Morrow

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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