SLAVE LAKE, Alta. — Life is slowly pumping back into a northern Alberta town scarred by a wildfire that left more than 400 homes and businesses in ruins.
About 7,000 people who fled the flames with only a moment’s notice 12 days ago were trickling back to Slave Lake on Friday after being given the green light to go home.
Under clear, sunny skies, a steady stream of moving vans, recreation vehicles, pickups, SUVs and cars came rolling in. Firefighters hung a huge Canadian flag from a ladder truck at the entry point to welcome people back.
RCMP were stopping vehicles at the edge of town to make sure returnees had the proper supplies with them. They were being asked to bring enough food and water for three days and fill any drug prescriptions ahead of time.
Melanie Dierker came back with her two kids in her brown Suburban.
“I am very excited to get back,” she said. “We have been living without anything for a week and a half now.”
Dierker didn’t lose her home in the fire. Still, she had her reservations about seeing all the damage.
“It’s going to be surreal. When we saw the fire on TV, it was like something happening in another country,” she said.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I am not sure how I am going to get used to looking at it. I can’t imagine my whole home and everything gone.”
A package of cleaning products was placed at the end of each driveway. People were being told to not open their freezers filled with spoiled food. The town said it would come by and haul them away. There were bear sightings in the area because of all the rotting food, but the animals were not expected to be a big problem.
The return was expected to be orderly, but not quick.
Residents were being allowed back in phases. Provincial officials warned of waits up to three hours to clear checkpoints, although any lineups that formed Friday morning were not long. Transportation was arranged for those who had to leave their vehicles behind when they fled.
It’s the final stage of a plan that began earlier this week to repopulate the town on the eastern lip of sprawling Lesser Slave Lake.
Officials gave the go-ahead after determining that the area was safe, nearby forest fires were under control and necessities such as power and water were back on. A boil-water advisory was lifted.
Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee predicted the return would be a transformative event.
“It will be a fantastic feeling to see people come home. People have been very anxious and patient,” she said.
“People want to get back to their lives.”
Pillay-Kinnee said she planned to be back at her desk Friday.
“First thing in the morning our council begins our rebuilding plan. That’s our focus.
“Now that we’re in recovery and rebuilding we have to look at what our community is going to look like in the next few months and next few years.”
Nevertheless, a state of emergency remained in place.
Essential workers such as doctors and nurses had already returned. Temporary shelter was being provided for about 100 of them. Business owners were allowed back early so that their shops could be opened in time for the return of everyone else.
Many residents, however, have no place to return to and are remaining with family, friends or at other locations until accommodations can be found.
More than 400 homes and businesses were hit. Entire neighbourhoods in the southeast section were reduced to ashes.
The province has designated $50 million in disaster relief, which includes more than a thousand dollars for every adult resident.
There has also been an outpouring of generosity from Canadians. They have donated clothing, food and hundreds of thousands of dollars to those who lost everything.