It was a heads-up that never came - a recommendation from the Alberta Emergency Management Agency to evacuate Slave Lake as a wildfire roared in.
The AEMA is the authority in emergencies and works with a series of other provincial agencies that deal with forest fires, road closures and weather monitoring. Based on all that information, which a local mayor can't easily access, it can recommend an evacuation.
But last Sunday, as high winds quickly drove flames from a day-old fire across two provincial highways and into southeast Slave Lake, that call was never made, government spokesman John Muir confirmed Tuesday evening.
It left the town waiting until flames rolled in. The local mayor unilaterally issued the order much later in the evening - because she had to wait for the province to reopen the highway out of town.
"The speed with which this happened was just too fast. We don't have the massive resources," Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said.
The revelation comes as evacuees repeatedly question why there was no advance warning for a fire that razed about 300 homes and damaged another 300, according to town estimates. Scores of families are homeless and left without anything, saying they'd be much better off now if they had been given even an hour's notice.
The Alberta government, which issued a province-wide fire ban Tuesday, says simply that the winds shifted quickly and the important thing is no one died. Premier Ed Stelmach refused to discuss details of whether an evacuation order was ever issued.
"I'm not going to second-guess what happened on Sunday. I'm very grateful that every resident was evacuated safely," Mr. Stelmach said. He said the province could one day "look back and learn," but "those are questions that will be answered later."
The executive director of emergency response for the AEMA defended the agency's handling of the overall response.
"[Towns]have the right training and the right resources and the right level of self-preparedness to deal with most routine incidents," Colin Lloyd said. "But we're not dealing with a routine incident here. We're dealing with something largely unprecedented."
Ms. Pillay-Kinnee said all officials were caught off guard.
And by the time the fire arrived, there was little the town could do. The province had shut down the roads to prevent people from driving into a fire. Meanwhile, the power was out, many phones didn't work, and the radio station had stopped broadcasting.
"Can you imagine how massive that is? Look at the timing, the failure of communications, residents weren't able to get on the highways," said Ms. Pillay-Kinnee, 40, in her third term at the helm. "Until we found out our highways were passable, we weren't able to give that evacuation notice."
It finally came around 10 p.m. But by that time, it was almost a moot point - several buildings had already caught fire and roads were jammed with fleeing residents.
"They should have given better notice. Really. It was right to the last minute," said Terry Davis, 58, who lost his home. "There were people leaving and the fire was right on the back doorstep. I know when I went out, there was cinder hitting my face."
He and his common-law wife, Colleen Fisher, fled with their clothes, purse and wallet. Everything else, including her recently deceased sister's ashes, was left inside.
"That's the only thing," Ms. Fisher said, wiping away tears during an interview at a multiplex where evacuees are being housed. "Everything else is just stuff."
Residents of nearby hamlets were evacuated Saturday, and many Slave Lake residents wonder why a similar order, even a precautionary one, was issued.
"They definitely screwed up. We should have been leaving the night before," said Kevin Stephenson, 43, whose home was still standing.
The fires continued to burn Tuesday, still classified as out-of-control but not growing. If winds stayed low, officials said it was unlikely Slave Lake, which is still closed to the public, would be hit by fire again.
Both the total number of fires (100) and those classified as out-of-control (23) were lower than a day before. "Crews are making some progress," said Rob Harris, a provincial fire information officer. However, lightning is in the forecast and heavy winds gusted through the region late Tuesday. Firefighting efforts remain largely at the whim of the weather.
That's what prompted the fire ban, which comes days before the popular May long weekend. "We have to be so careful to ensure nobody flicks a cigarette butt along a rural road. We have evidence a number of fires were man-made," Mr. Stelmach said.
The province isn't lacking for fire crews. More than 400 are coming from Ontario and British Columbia, and Alberta has no requests for more. Another 124 helicopters (including, one provincial official said, nearly every heavy helicopter in the country) and 20 airplanes are fighting back the flames. Eight communities remain on evacuation orders.
Slave Lake residents still don't know when they'll be back. Water, gas and power service haven't been restored. Many don't know if their homes are still standing - to put together a detailed list, provincial and town inspectors need to assess the damage. They haven't been able to do that because fire crews are still battling fires around the town and flare-ups within it.
"It's not safe to return," Ms. Pillay-Kinnee said.
Some people have tried to sneak back in. There are now about 100 Mounties and sheriffs in Slave Lake, tasked with preventing looting. So far, three buildings have had doors kicked down or windows broken, but police stopped short of saying whether anything was stolen.
Crews continued to work around the clock, including seven Mounties who lost their own homes. It's those efforts that should be praised, Mr. Stelmach said, instead of questioning the Sunday response.
"That kind of personal sacrifice is truly commendable," the Premier said, later adding: "There are many questions, and we're doing our best to get the answers."Report Typo/Error