EDMONTON — It is certain to be an emotionally charged bus tour for evacuees from fire-ravaged Slave Lake, Alberta. By the end of it, many of them will face the new reality of being homeless.
One week after a wildfire blazed through the town reducing a third of its buildings to ash and rubble, some 250 people will return briefly to the area for a first-hand look at the devastation.
Two buses, carrying 50 people each, left evacuation centres in Athabasca and Edmonton on Monday morning. Three more are scheduled to leave later in the day, including one from Westlock.
They will drive through the community, but no one will be allowed to leave the buses for safety reasons.
Tom Neufeld, a spokesman for the province’s emergency operations centre, said another 250 displaced residents will get to tour Slave Lake on Tuesday. He said the government would then evaluate the situation to determine whether to schedule additional tours.
“Ideally, we’d have more people going up. But right now the safety of residents, and putting out fires and making sure the recovery effort is not disrupted is really paramount,” Neufeld said to The Canadian Press from Edmonton. He said the routes the buses will be taking will be posted online.
No one under 18 will be allowed on the tour and residents themselves will determine who gets on the buses, Neufeld said.
A faith-based representative will accompany the residents in each of the buses. Media will not be allowed on the tour.
The decision to allow hundreds of evacuees to briefly return to their devastated neighbourhoods came Sunday night as tensions were running high among the displaced community. Frustrated evacuees had been pressing the government for answers on whose homes were gutted in the fire and whose were still standing.
The province has extended the evacuation order for at least another week, saying it would be unsafe for people to return until hot spots are extinguished, and every property has been inspected for possible gas leaks and other damage.
Desiree Jemina, a temporary foreign worker from the Philippines who was renting a trailer in Slave Lake, said she hoped to be able to get on one of the two buses leaving from Athabasca to check on the trailer’s condition.
Jemina has been living in an emergency shelter in Athabasca for the past week. She said life in the shelter has been hard, even though staff and volunteers have been extremely generous.
“They’re even offering free haircuts, even for dogs and for cats that are here in the centre. But still, it’s different because you’re not sleeping in your own bed and there’s lots of people around so there’s really no privacy,” she said, her voice raised so that she could be heard over the band that was performing for the shelter residents.
Support for the more than 7,000 Slave Lake evacuees has poured in from all over Alberta. Social networks were abuzz during the Victoria Day long weekend with communities announcing yard sales and other fundraisers, including a bikini car wash, to help those in need. Kids were also trying to help, setting up lemonade stands and running toonie drives.
Promoters of a show in Edmonton on Saturday night by Tracy Morgan, comedian and star of TV’s “30 Rock,” said 50 per cent of the proceeds of tickets sold after May 16 would be donated to the Red Cross to help families of Slave Lake.
In some cases donors have driven supplies themselves to emergency shelters, only to find that the shelter already had enough of the aid they came to deliver.
The Alberta government said this weekend that there are 53 wildfires in the province, 10 of which remain out of control. More than 2,000 personnel are fighting the fires, including nearly 500 firefighters from British Columbia and Ontario.
So far, there has been only one death associated with the fires. A helicopter that was battling a blaze at the summer village of Canyon Creek crashed into Lesser Slave Lake on Friday. The pilot was pronounced dead at the scene. The Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the crash.