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Burned-out homes from May's wildfire are shown in an aerial view of Slave Lake, Alta., prior to the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, July 6, 2011.JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As they settle in for a winter in temporary housing, resigned to a few years of rebuilding, the people of Slave Lake must also wrestle with a disturbing new revelation: The responsibility for the devastating fire that swept through their town in May lies not with nature but an arsonist.

It has taken the Alberta government 5 1/2 months to investigate, in what became Canada's largest arson probe ever, at least by dollar value. On Tuesday, the province said the fire was deliberately set and that investigators have pinpointed the ignition site and cause – though they wouldn't reveal either.

Now that hefty file of "investigative notes and physical evidence" is in the hands of the RCMP to find the suspect – or suspects – and potentially lay criminal charges. Officials have asked the public to offer tips, or for those responsible for the $700-million in damage to come forward.

With 100 building permits issued, foundations being poured and residents of the northern Alberta town out shopping again, there are outward signs of normalcy, but this is a setback for people trying to move on.

"You could pretty much expect a posse looking for them," said Yolande Klyne, who lost her home in the blaze. "It's such a sensitive issue all these months later. People are still really angry."

Ms. Klyne is living with her husband and two children in a temporary trailer until their new home is finished. But her 10-year-old daughter, Madi, is still frightened by the ordeal and is one of six children in her Grade 5 class suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I think we're still going to be dealing with this for quite some time," Ms. Klyne said.

The mid-May wildfire, which forced the evacuation of 7,000 residents, is already considered the second most costly disaster in Canadian history behind the ice storm that hit Quebec and Ontario in 1998.

"Our investigation eliminated all natural, industrial and accidental causes," Sustainable Resource Development Minister Frank Oberle said Tuesday. "Disturbing as that conclusion is, the probable cause of the fire that burned more than 400 homes and other structures in Slave Lake was arson."

Amid extreme dryness and 100 kilometre-per-hour winds, three fires threatened the community, but it was the one raging to the southeast, known as Fire 65, which covered 4,700 hectares and caused the damage. The roots of the other two fires remain unknown, but arson has been ruled out.

Every year, about 1,600 wildfires hit the province – half started by lightning strikes and half set by people, mostly accidents such as out-of-control campfires. Just 25 fires in the past five years have been classified as arson in Alberta.

While police said it is too early in the investigation to discuss possible charges, a conviction for arson causing damage to property can result in up to 14 years in prison, while a conviction for setting a fire with disregard for human life can draw a life sentence.

"We would look for evidence that would support the fact that somebody either recklessly or intentionally started the fire," said RCMP Superintendent Marlin Degrand.

Since 11 local Mounties lost their homes to the fire, the Slave Lake detachment will not be involved in the investigation, to assure objectivity.

Lorraine Lyons, who operates a flower and gift shop in town, was saddened to learn that someone deliberately set a fire that caused so much damage and risked the lives of emergency crews, including pilot Jean-Luc Deba, who died when his firefighting helicopter crashed.

"You just think, who would do that?" she said.

Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee was frustrated and saddened by the development and asked residents to be patient. "We can't bring back what we've lost regardless of the cause," she said. "But having answers is definitely part of the healing, so we're just going to let the experts do their work."

The province expects an independent review of its response to the fire and its fire-management programs will be delivered early next year, with enough time to implement any recommendations before the next fire season.


Slave Lake Fire 65:

$700-million - damage

7,000 - people evacuated

400 - structures, mostly homes, destroyed

4,700 hectares - size

1,581 - average annual number of Alberta wildfires in past five years

25 - wildfires caused by arson during past five years

5 1/2 - months to investigate

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