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Fire crews gave everything in fight to save scorched Slave Lake, officials say

Smoke rises off of massive wildfires near Slave Lake, in northern Alberta, on May 15, 2011.

Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press/Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press

Alberta fire officials defended their efforts to try to save Slave Lake a day after 7,000 residents were forced to flee as a powerful, fast-moving fire destroyed a wide swath of the town.

Smoke hung heavy in the air on Monday, as firefighters continued battling spot fires.

More than one-third of the town was destroyed, including hundreds of homes, churches and businesses. So too was the town hall, library and radio station.

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"Everything that these guys had was put into protecting the community - there's no question," Rob Harris, a fire information officer, said at a provincial briefing.

"Many of them live in Slave Lake. It's devastating for them as well. They made every single effort that they could and tried to do everything they could while it was safe."

The catastrophe took hold at a striking pace. By mid-afternoon Sunday, there was no evacuation order. In fact, officials were cautiously optimistic, even as two wildfires burned on the outskirts of town.

Then the winds picked up, gusting to 100 kilometres an hour and delivering the community a double blow. The wind stoked fast-moving flames, which jumped two highways before reaching Slave Lake. Meanwhile, they also grounded the province's water-bomber airplanes, a key part of fire defence.

"It happened so quickly," Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said Monday. "It was within minutes, half an hour, for a whole community to evacuate and mobilize their resources to do that."

Initially, residents were trapped as fires closed all the roads out of town. But around 7:30 p.m. local time, officials opened Highway 2, which took residents away from the flames.

Over the next four hours, the fire spread almost unchallenged. That's when the town fell into a communications meltdown - critically, the radio station, which had been broadcasting evacuation notices, lost its power and went off the air, hours before burning down itself.

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There are no reports of injuries.

Many questioned the delays in responding, wondering why a voluntary evacuation order wasn't put into place earlier in the day.

"Nobody was told of the possibility of being in danger. The winds shifting was always a possibility," said Mandy Jeworski, 27. She and her fiancé fled their home in Widewater, west of Slave Lake, after an evacuation order much earlier Sunday. "I don't know what's happened to our house. I can only hope it's not completely destroyed. And if it is, we're safe and I know we're going to be OK."

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach was headed to Slave Lake, saying he wanted to see the damage first-hand.

About 70 firefighters from the Edmonton area also were going north to assist in the fight, and provincial officials say equipment and roughly 200 firefighters from B.C. and Ontario are expected to arrive by Tuesday to help.

Ontario alone is sending 85 firefighters to Alberta.

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"They've been there for us when we've had forest fires, so as long as they need us we're going to be there," Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey told reporters on Monday.

Ontario's ability to handle emergencies is "probably as good as it gets," Ms. Jeffrey said, because firefighters are used to battling fires in remote communities in Northern Ontario.

"They will know what to do in the bush and how to manage in difficult conditions," she said.

At the multiplex in Athabasca, about 130 kilometres southeast of Slave Lake, some 600 people spent the night on blow-up mattresses and foam mats set up on the centre's indoor soccer field, said Terry Smith, manager of the emergency reception centre.

"It's been tough on the people coming here. They've had a late night of it," he said. "Everybody's very concerned because it was a fire evacuation and they're concerned about themselves and their neighbours and what the outcome is going to be."

Volunteers prepared a breakfast of French toast and sausages in the facility's kitchen while others tended to more than 50 dogs and cats. A paramedic was on hand to help evacuees who fled without their medication.

One thing is certain - Slave Lake, as residents knew it, is a thing of the past.

"I'm very much in panic. At this point even if our home is OK, there will not be much of the community to go back to. Who even knows if we will have a job to go back to? Our entire lives were in Slave and now it will never be the same and the fire doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon," resident Cindy Martin, 27, who fled with her daughter and three cats, said in an e-mail.

Slave Lake was the epicentre of a forest fire outbreak that swept through the province on the weekend, driven by high winds. About 115 fires were burning Monday morning, 36 of them out of control, Mr. Harris said. Many of them were started within the past few days. The sources are unknown, but dry conditions, high winds and warm weather all helped flames spread.

The fires weren't confined to the Slave Lake area. A lodge and trailer park were evacuated in Wood Buffalo, the municipality that includes Fort McMurray and the oil sands, but RCMP officials said late Sunday that oil-sands manufacturers weren't yet affected.

"It looks ominous around town," Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake said. "When you're watching what's happening in Slave Lake, it really makes you pay a lot more attention."

Meanwhile, two hours northwest of Slave Lake, several small aboriginal communities had been evacuated. The nearby site of an oil spill cleanup, near Little Buffalo, was also evacuated. The site will stay empty, and cleanup efforts idle, until a state of emergency is lifted, said officials from Plains Midstream Canada, which owned the pipeline that broke on April 28, triggering Alberta's largest oil spill in more than 30 years.

With reports from Carrie Tait in Calgary, Karen Howlett in Toronto and from The Canadian Press

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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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