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Stunned Slave Lake evacuees left without answers

Sharon Horner and her family have lost their home and now live out of a camper after a forest fire tore through the community of Slave Lake.

Jimmy Jeong for the Globe and Mail/jimmy jeong The Globe and Mail

Some are here until they can return home. Others are here until they can figure out where to start over.

After wildfires forced the evacuation of Slave Lake, Alta., nearly 1,000 residents have headed an hour east, gathering at an evacuee site set up at a sports complex in Athabasca, Alta.

It's temporary, but it's all some have. Hundreds will never be able to go back to the homes they knew. Fires that shifted suddenly on Sunday evening have destroyed scores of homes in southeast Slave Lake, described as the worst fire in a generation.

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At many homes, little remained Monday afternoon beyond cement staircases, drooping remnants of metal and smouldering rubble. The damage was caused by a fire for which an evacuation order came after flames had already entered the town.

Frustration and shock have now begun to give way to anger – at the lack of an early evacuation order, at the chaos once an order was finally issued and over an enduring lack of information more than day later.

"Right up until the last minute when we started our car, we were still being told to stay in Slave Lake," said Sharon Horner, 45, who fled with her husband and three children. "It was chaos."

It's not as if the Horner family was overly cautious. They waited all day for notice to leave, and only did so after a neighbour warned their daughter, who'd been sitting outside: "Tell your dad to get the hell out now."

Ms. Horner quickly rounded up the family and dogs while Mr. Horner hitched their RV to a truck. They were gone within minutes.

As they drove, flaming shingles rained on their vehicle. Thick smoke covered everything. They knew the worst was coming – their house was soon up in flames. Their 18-year-old son, driving behind them, sent a simple text message: "I'm scared."

"It was black, your eyes were burning. If you opened your mouth, it felt like you were breathing fire," Ms. Horner said. "They were driving on the sidewalks. Everyone was just running for their lives. And there was no warning. None."

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A communications meltdown hampered the town's efforts to get word out once the winds shifted suddenly. The town had been using the local radio station, but its message was hardly dire – pop songs played in between sporadic news updates, which as the day dragged on were rarely timely.

Eventually, the power failed. The radio signal died. Other than Internet postings, there was no public warning.

"They're saying check our website, check Facebook. Who's walking around with an iPhone or a laptop?" said Ken Caissie, 52, who was evacuated from his own home near Slave Lake on Saturday evening, only to be evacuated again later from inside the town limits, where he was staying with family.

Buses that took residents from Slave Lake also led to confusion. Lloyd Cardinal, 49, allowed his 16-year-old son to take a bus to Athabasca while the rest of the family waited for gasoline to make the same drive. Instead, the bus went to Edmonton, where the teen is stuck.

"We let him go because he wanted to be with his friends, didn't want to hang out with the old people," Mr. Cardinal says. "Now, he's still over there. We can't get him back."

The town has opened its arms to evacuees such as Mr. Cardinal. At the bustling complex, cots are stretched out from wall to wall, piles of clothes sit unclaimed and food is served regularly. It's one of three similar centres set up across the region. In Athabasca, officials had to specifically ask locals to stop bringing clothes, food and other supplies – they're overwhelmed. A list of offers by local residents to welcome displaced families into their homes far outpaces demand.

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"We can't thank the town of Athabasca enough," said Calvin Auger, 41. "We're so grateful."

One thing you won't see in the complex, however, are TVs. Provincial officials have specifically kept them away, not wanting to scare children with images from the catastrophe.

"We don't know what those images are going to look like, but it's not going to be comforting," said Kim Capstick, a spokeswoman at the centre and provincial staffer among many who were scrambled up to the region Monday morning. "We want to make sure this place is as welcoming and calming as it can be for everyone."

It has nevertheless fuelled complaints made by the vast majority of residents, who say they remain in an information vacuum. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach visited the site Monday, one of many stops where he tried to explain that the wind shifted too quickly, and that crews did their best.

"These were calls made by professionals. This is the result, again, of very, very high winds," Mr. Stelmach said in Slave Lake Monday, noting there was no loss of life. (RCMP say that's impossible to confirm until the rubble is searched).

However, families don't know whether their homes are still standing, when they can return, whether they'll get relief funding and what they should do in the meantime. (Mr. Stelmach said residents won't return for several days.) "Everybody's in here waiting for some kind of information," said Kevin Stephenson, 43. "I still want to know when I can go to my house, because my house is still standing."

For others, the answers aren't as easy.

The Horners don't know what to do. Their home of 17 years is gone. So too is Ms. Horner's livelihood, a bookkeeping business run out of what was once her family's basement. For now, a total of eight family members and five dogs are living in their RV in the sports complex parking lot.

"What do you go back to? There's rubble and car frames. That's it," Ms. Horner said, fighting back tears. "For now, we're living in this. This is our home."

She believes the response was too little, too late. She tried to complain to Mr. Stelmach and other cabinet ministers who visited Monday, but they visited the evacuee centre only briefly. She got no answers.

"If you think at any point that it could get out of control, you cannot wait. Give people a chance to get what they can," she said, adding: "People need to hear from more than the Premier talking about what they did. What about what they didn't do? And what they could have done?"

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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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