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In about-face, Alberta says Slave Lake was told to evacuate residents

A dog is shown at a makeshift animal shelter in Slave Lake, Alta., Wednesday, May 18, 2011. Almost all of Slave Lakes's 7,000 residents fled Sunday in the face of a forest fire that eventually destroyed about a third of the town. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press

Alberta's top emergency agency now says it told Slave Lake's mayor to evacuate the town, although fires had already closed the highways.

That statement represents an about-face for the province on a disaster that left hundreds of families homeless and raises questions about whether key recommendations, made in the aftermath of the region's last major fire, have been implemented.

Displaced Slave Lake residents have repeatedly asked why they weren't given any warning before Sunday's fire swept through their town. On Tuesday, the province said the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, created in part to improve disaster communication, did not recommend evacuation.

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A day later, it said it did. Dana Woodworth, the AEMA's managing director, said he called Slave Lake's mayor Sunday evening. He can't recall what time he did so.

"I personally spoke to the mayor and recommended that on Sunday. She took that advice and acted … and the end result is every single Albertan who left is fine at this point in time," Mr. Woodworth said Wednesday.

However, by the time evacuation became necessary the roads were closed, Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee has said. The highways were first closed around 6 p.m. People were told to flee to parking lots and the beach.

"We [the town]evacuated the town as soon as we knew residents were safe to leave on the highways," she said in a text message this week. But that order came too late: By then, homes were already on fire and residents were fleeing.

Municipalities are responsible for formally calling an evacuation, but the province holds all the cards. It has much of the information, such as forest fire statuses, required to make such a decision, which is why the recommendation is important.

The AEMA was created after the last time a wild fire hit a community - the hamlet of Chisholm, Alta., in 2001. A provincial report about that fire says explicitly that the province "makes recommendations to a municipality regarding any evacuation." As such, it's critical to ensure "communication is a top priority before, during and after fire events," the report said.

Communication faltered in Slave Lake. Nearby communities had been evacuated the evening before, which is when Slave Lake first declared its state of emergency, but Slave Lake residents were told online and on radio throughout Sunday that they didn't have to leave, even after the fire shifted and threatened the town.

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The Chisholm report recommended the "establishment of protocols or tactics for ensuring timely communication with those most directly affected during and after an incident." The complaints of Chisholm residents, contained in the report, echo those made by displaced Slave Lake residents - little communication before, during or after the fire.

Mr. Woodworth said the fire simply moved too quickly to evacuate earlier.

"The very nature of disasters, there's a temporal aspect. They happen quickly. And that's what occurred," he said, rejecting any comparison with the last major fire and the report it prompted. "We're talking about Sunday, May 15, 2011, not the Chisholm fire."

The two fires near Slave Lake, and 85 others across the province, continued to burn Wednesday. In total, 191,000 hectares have been burned - more than double the total of all of 2010.

On Wednesday, the province kicked in $50-million for disaster relief, earmarked for housing and income support. "This funding is an important first step on the road to rebuilding the community," Premier Ed Stelmach said in a written statement. Residents have to register with the Red Cross to access it.

Ottawa shares the responsibility for disaster relief funding, but its contribution is based on a strict formula. Mr. Stelmach has called on the federal government to loosen that in the case of Slave Lake, but Public Safety Canada has given no signal it will do that.

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Many residents still don't know if their homes are standing, and won't be allowed back for at least several days.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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