Inside the Slave Lake inferno

How a raging wildfire devastated the community in a matter of minutes
Inside the inferno
The fire destroyed 40 per cent of the community’s structures

“At 4 p.m. I was taking aerial photos of the forest fire,” says reporter-photographer Caezer Ng of Slave Lake, Alta.’s Lakeside Leader. “Based on what I saw from the air, I was fairly encouraged. It looked like there was a comfortable kilometre-and-a-half, maybe two-kilometre gap between us and the fire. By five o’clock I was on the ground in a burning town.” It was the afternoon of Sunday, May 15. In a matter of minutes, some 40 per cent of the structures in the community of 7,000 would be lost to a conflagration of unexpected speed and destructiveness. Slave Lake’s gleaming $36-million town hall, completed just 17 months ago, went up in flames almost as though it had been built out of thermite. So too did the Catholic church, the public library, and the mall.

The town, a fast-growing centre for oil patch activity, forestry and tourism, sits 200 km north of Edmonton at the eastern tip of Lesser Slave Lake. Like much of northern Alberta, it had been scourged for much of the previous week by dry, warm winds gusting up to 100 km/hr, winds normally much more characteristic of the province’s arid south. Duncan MacDonnell, a public affairs man for the provincial ministry that oversees forest protection, walked outside Saturday in Edmonton and immediately kissed his leisurely Sunday goodbye: “I knew there was a full day of wildfire briefings in front of me.” He was right; within the next few days, two dozen wildfires would grow out of control throughout the province and 1,100 sq. km would be scorched.

Slave Lake’s rapid expansion over recent years had left it without much natural separation between new subdivisions and the surrounding bush. The fire that eventually ravaged the town began 15 km to the southeast on Saturday, and residents were advised to be ready to bug out on two hours’ notice. When the inferno arrived, they did not get half that. The front of the blaze leaped local highways with an ease that surprised firefighters, and hot winds spread the fire in sudden terrifying flashovers rather than picturesque tongues of flame. Propane tanks and other fuel-storage facilities exploded in a steady stream of pops as families sought out safer parts of town. The burning of the local Ford dealership, with its trucks and its repair shop full of flammables, is said to have been especially memorable.

No official evacuation order was issued until late Sunday, as the fire was already entering the town. By that time, there was not much means left of transmitting instructions. The fire cut power to the local FM radio station, eventually destroying it, and compromised cellphone service. Police cars prowled the streets frantically, their operators helpless and short on information. Amidst literal anarchy and destruction, the people of Slave Lake stayed calm and escaped without a single fatality. Virtually every four-wheeled vehicle in town was put to work as drivers sacrificed their own belongings, perhaps forever, to make room for neighbours.

Word soon spread that the campus of Northern Lakes College was serving as the mustering point for evacuation, and terrified victims found a welcome sign of civil authority in the person of Lesser Slave Lake MLA Pearl Calahasen. “Be sure to tell people how awesome Pearl was,” says evacuee Roger Auger, describing how the former cabinet minister expertly coordinated disaster response on her cellphone while comforting traumatized, smoke-grimed families.

Evacuees included 29 patients from the Slave Lake General Hospital, which survived the fire. Hundreds may be homeless. Facilities in the northern towns of Westlock and Athabasca were commandeered for shelter, and Edmonton’s new 500,000-sq.-foot Expo Centre on the Northlands exhibition grounds, which was preparing to spend much of late May holding grad parties for high-schoolers, is now full of forlorn rows of cots.

Outside the Expo building on Tuesday, evacuees traded war stories and reassured friends and family, over the phone and in person. In a corner of the parking lot, humane society volunteers tended to a small menagerie of rescued Slave Lake pets. Even the evacuees whose homes escaped destruction aren’t sure when they will be allowed to return, or how bad the smoke damage will turn out to be when they do. The town will recover, but some people will just move on. “My wife and I will probably look for work here instead of just killing time at the centre,” says Auger. “We’re still not sure if our house is there. We’ve been watching the pictures on television, hoping maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of it.”