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Slave Lake fire in northern Alberta leaves eerie charred moonscape, carpets of ash

SLAVE LAKE, Alta. - What was once a neighbourhood of family homes is now an eerie moonscape of blackened cement foundations and charred automobile skeletons.

Manicured lawns have become black carpets of ash heaped with twisted corrugated metal and melted loops of vinyl siding. Hedges are nothing more than rows of burnt spikes.

On the empty streets of Slave Lake in northern Alberta, rescue officials were knocking on doors Monday to ensure that everyone ordered out had gone and no one was left behind.

Fire crews were still fighting to smother a ravaging wildfire that was still out of control nearby.

``We're homeless. We have no town. We have NO town,'' Coreen Attilon said from an evacuation centre in Edmonton, 250 kilometres southeast of Slave Lake.

Attilon was among 7,000 residents ordered out Sunday around suppertime after forest fires whipped by 100-kilometre-an-hour winds jumped the protective highway and rained hot embers on rooftops.

Alberta cabinet minister Thomas Lukaszuk said it was the largest single-day displacement of people in the province's history.

It was a fire that was as capricious as it was ferocious.

On one street, houses on one side were reduced to black hulks of collapsed timber. On the other, they were still immaculate, the lawns still emerald green.

Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee estimated one-third of the town was gone. The police station, hospital and school still stood, but the government centre and library were cinders.

Hundreds of residents were left wondering if their homes had been spared or levelled.

``It's totally devastating,'' Pillay-Kinnee phoned in to a briefing in Edmonton. ``I've never seen anything like this before.''

There were no reports of deaths or injuries and none of about 30 hospital patients who had to be transferred to other facilities was harmed.

Alberta Municipal Affairs said 95 per cent of the town was empty and only essential or firefighting staff remained.

Reinforcements were on their way. British Columbia was sending 120 smoke eaters and Ontario was shipping out another 80. Crews and equipment from Edmonton and Calgary were backing up local firefighters.

They were battling two fires in the region: one seven square kilometres in size; the other three times larger.

Stelmach said he'd asked key government ministries and agencies to deal with the immediate needs of residents.

He pointed out water lines need to be restored, along with power and other major infrastructure.

``This is the worst curve ball nature has thrown at us in recent memory,'' said Stelmach.

``In all the years I've served in the legislature, this is by far the largest (natural disaster) that has affected so many people.''

The premier said the federal government had already provided cots and blankets for evacuees, as well as generators for health services trailers. He said he spoke to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who told him additional federal resources would be made available if needed.

Evacuation centres were set up in the communities of Westlock, Athabasca and Edmonton. A separate gym in Athabasca was set up for pets.

In Edmonton, evacuees began trickling into a large convention centre in the city's north end. They were registered and sent to a cavernous, dimly lit hall with a roof as high as a hockey arena. Officials there had set up rows of black metal cots with grey pinstripe mattresses and grey blankets. There was food, coffee and drinks. The cots were 20 wide and 10 deep.

One group had already pushed 10 or so cots together to try to create an island of privacy.

Attilon said she wondered about her friends and her mobile home, which was in the hard-hit neighbourhood of southeast Slave Lake.

``I got a text (message) this morning saying the whole thing is gone,'' said Attilon, who said she got out in her van with her friend Pete Prosser, her dog Max, some family photos, a gym bag and a knapsack.

She said the night was a literal trial by fire, even for a town that has learned to live with the annual threat from floods and fires.

She said she knew danger was coming when the skies filled with smoke and the winds whipped up to reach the roar of a freight train.

``We're going,'' she remembers telling Prosser. ``Let's go.''

They hopped in the van and joined a gridlock of cars trying to escape. Like mice in a maze, they drove down one road only to get turned around and forced back into town. Then down another road.

``It was black smoke. Just black. The whole sky was black.''

They could see fire raging on both sides of the highway, the heat radiating through the windows. Ash was raining down. They came to one last road.

``I saw a firefighter with an open gate. We go up to him and I said, 'Buddy, is the road to Edmonton open?' and he said 'Yeah.'''

Behind them, they could see other cars lined up and jammed in a parking lot.

``That was the worst feeling. Looking back and seeing everybody in that parking lot with fire all around. Like surrounded. Totally, absolutely surrounded.''

Annette Smith said she fled with her two children and some clothes to Edmonton, driving through swirling banks of ash and smoke, telling her children to put their shirts over their mouths to avoid the choking fumes.

``As a mom I wanted to leave, but you're leaving everything behind and I didn't want to jump the gun,'' she said. ``We've had fires there for years and they've been so close before and we've been OK.

``But this time it didn't work that way.''

Wildfire officer Rob Harris said crews had been working since Saturday to fight the two fires, but were challenged by the strong winds and warm, dry conditions.

``The wind just fanned it out,'' he said.

``Firefighters were managing to hold the front fairly well. However, when those winds kicked up to 100 km/h all bets were off.''

Slave Lake was not the only community in trouble. There were 36 fires burning out of control in the province.

The Lubicon Lake First Nation at Little Buffalo said it received word that fire was 25 kilometres away. But winds moving in the opposite direction were keeping the blaze at bay in a slow-burning stand of aspen trees.

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