SLAVE LAKE — Residents of fire-ravaged northern Alberta communities in and near Slave Lake are finally learning if their homes were engulfed by flames.
The town has released a detailed photographic map which shows 374 lots were destroyed by the wildfires that swept through the area Sunday evening. Another 52 lots were damaged. There is also a map of homes in the nearby Municipal District of Lesser Slave River which shows 59 lots were destroyed and 32 were damaged.
Flames forced roughly 7,000 people to flee from their homes.
Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee says many residents will be heartbroken by the news, but they need to know.
“This is a very emotional undertaking for everyone involved,” she said Thursday as the maps were shown to people at evacuation centres in Athabasca, Westlock and Edmonton.
“I understand the anxiety residents have felt since being evacuated, not knowing if their home or business had been damaged or destroyed.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach are to tour the communities Friday.
Officials say it will be weeks before people are allowed to move back to the undamaged homes.
Alberta is working on a plan to get people out of evacuation centres and into temporary homes and to help students who have been forced from school.
The provincial Housing Department says people whose homes were not destroyed will be placed in short-term accommodation such as hotels until they can return home, with help from the Red Cross. Spokesman Dan Laville says residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged will get assistance finding longer-term rental accommodation. Details of the plan are to be announced in the coming days.
“Our goal is to help people move out of the evacuation centres as soon as we can,” Laville said.
Alberta Education announced that students in Grades 3, 6 and 9 who were to write Provincial Achievement Tests in and around Slave Lake will not be required to take the tests. Grade 12 students will be exempt from writing diploma exams unless they wish to take them at a different school. Students who don’t write the exams will receive final grades based on their school marks.
Crews have been busy trying to make the community safe, but it will be a long time before life approaches anything resembling normal.
Pillay-Kinnee says progress is being made to repair electric and natural gas service to undamaged homes. Hooking up a potable water supply will take longer. Repairs to damaged homes are expected to take months. Rebuilding destroyed homes could take more than a year.
“Please be patient and understanding. We are working around the clock to make the community a safe place for their return,” she said. “We are going to get through this.”
The town is considering building some temporary housing, including trailers, but these would also require water, sewer, electric and gas hook-ups.
Alberta wildfire officials say rain showers Wednesday night helped improve conditions. On Thursday there were 72 wildfires burning across the province, 19 of them out of control. That’s a drop from more than 30 over the last few days.
Duncan MacDonnell, with Sustainable Resource Development, says there are fears that lightning strikes could start new fires. Forests are still too dry and the fire threat in the region remains extreme.
“We are watching for the threat of thunderstorms because lighting strikes could cause more fires and we don’t want anymore of that.”
— By John Cotter in Edmonton