SLAVE LAKE, Alberta – Wildfires that blazed through a northern Canadian town forced the evacuation of nearly 7,000 people.
Slave Lake Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee said Monday that nearly one-third of the buildings were destroyed after strong winds suddenly turned the flames on the town.
All residents were ordered to leave Sunday afternoon, but evacuation proved difficult as smoke and fast-moving flames blocked some of the highways.
Some residents fled to a town 130 kilometers (80 miles) away. No deaths or injuries have been reported but rescue officials were knocking on doors to ensure that everyone ordered out had gone and no one was left behind.
Alberta Municipal Affairs said 95 percent of the town was empty and only essential or firefighting staff remained. Alberta cabinet minister Thomas Lukaszuk said it was the largest single-day displacement of people in the province's history.
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. The police station, hospital and school still stood, but the government center and library were reduced to cinders.
Hundreds of residents were left wondering if their homes had been spared or leveled.
"It's totally devastating," Pillay-Kinnee said. "I've never seen anything like this before."
Fire crews were fighting to smother a ravaging wildfire that was still out of control nearby.
Reinforcements were on their way ffom British Columbia and Ontario.
By Monday evening, the fire east of Slave Lake had consumed about 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles), while the blaze south of the community had burned 150 square kilometers (57.9 square miles).
"We're homeless. We have no town. We have no town," Coreen Attilon said from an evacuation center in Edmonton, 250 kilometers (155 miles) southeast of Slave Lake.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach went to Slave Lake to survey the damage.
"This is the worst curve ball nature has thrown at us in recent memory," Stelmach said. "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 centers were set up in the communities of Westlock, Athabasca and Edmonton, Alberta. A separate gym in Athabasca was set up for pets.
Annette Smith said she gathered some clothes and fled with her two children to Edmonton, telling her children to put their shirts over their mouths to avoid the choking fumes as she drove through swirling banks of ash and smoke, .
"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."
The fires forced Pen West Exploration to shut down between 25,000 and 40,000 barrels of oil production per day in northern Alberta. Canadian Natural Resources evacuated about 1,300 people from two work camps near its Horizon oil sands site.