To the residents of Lesser Slave River, the gentle spring weather was a welcome break from the winter months. For weeks they enjoyed cloudless skies and warm, dry weather, and the beginning of May 14 was no different.
Before the day's end, however, this same weather pattern would provide the catalyst for Canada's worst natural disaster.
An ordinary day.
With no clouds or rain in the area, the entire municipality has been dry for days. Consistently heavy winds in the 50 to 70 km/h range significantly compound the wildfire risk.
"It was incredibly windy that day. My husband and I were doing yard work when we saw the first water bomber fly over."
The first fire is spotted.
A fire is spotted in an old logged-out area by quad riders, and moments later by an Air Attack Officer on a flyover. It's immediately reported to municipal administrators. Water bombers, ground crews and heavy equipment are dispatched to fight the blaze.
"We saw a large black cloud and we thought 'this is something we've never seen before.' And then we saw fire dropping out of the sky."
A new fire is spotted.
A second fire is spotted from the air about eight kilometers east of Slave Lake. Some resources from the first fire are diverted to fight this fire as it approaches the communities of Mitsue and Poplar Lane. It spreads from zero to 500 hectares in less than three hours.
State of Local Emergency Declared.
The MD issues a State of Local Emergency after learning that homes in Mitsue had been destroyed. SRD and regional ground crews work throughout the night hitting spot fires, rescuing structures and back burning. SRD air attack times out and will resume in the morning.
Fires out of control.
With winds upwards of 70 km/h, both fires are now burning out of control. Fire 56 reaches its trigger point and the MD evacuates all communities west of Slave Lake. HWY 2 West closes for safe travel of evacuees, and HWY 2 East closes intermittently due to fire.
MD headquarters abandoned.
Winds change course and reach 100 km/h. Fire rages back through Mitsue, destroying more homes and heading for Slave Lake. The MD abandons its office and joins Slave Lake incident command. SRD grounds its water bombers due to high winds. HWY 2 West and HWY 88 North close.
A third fire erupts.
A third fire is spotted to the north of Slave Lake, and diminishing SRD resources are dispatched to the scene. Compared to the other two rapidly spreading fires, this blaze proves relatively easy to contain.
All roads to the region are cut off.
The fire crosses Highway 88 and is soon expected to cross Highway 2. All routes into or out of the area are completely cut off. Water and electricity begin to fail. The local radio station goes off the air. SRD, Police, Fish & Wildlife and local fire crews stand their ground.
A Level 4 Emergency is declared.
The situation is escalated to a Level Four Emergency – the highest possible designation. The Emergency Operations Centre works around the clock. They request help from the Provincial Operations Center. Neighbouring municipalities contribute available resources.
The Province rushes to assist.
SRD and local firefighters are joined by emergency personnel from across the province. As they continue to attack the wildfires, only essential Emergency Operations staff, police and firefighters remain in the area. Premier Stelmach strikes a task force to deal with the emergency.
"We could hear animals...coyotes and wolves. They were just screeching. Yelping."
"It was so smoky. It was hard to breathe. It looked like hell."
Brian McAsey, Public Information Officer for the Calgary Fire Services, provides an update at a press conference following the wildfire.
The fires are contained.
All fires in the area are classified as “Under Control.” All remaining road blocks are removed, and recovery efforts begin in earnest. Essential services have been restored, and phased re-entry
of residents begins.
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Just a few hours due north of Edmonton, Lesser Slave River is a truly unique place to live, work and play. From breathtaking expanses of boreal forest and unspoiled natural wonders to a thriving economy and genuine work/life balance, opportunities abound. Here you'll discover a place of rugged beauty. A place of real people. A place you'll never want to leave.