Monster to the northeast: Slave Lake starts the week as a safe haven and ends on an evacuation alert of its own

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

This started out being a story about the challenges and opportunities involved in hosting a few hundred High Level evacuees. But as the week progressed that faded into the background, as Slave Lakers realized their own community might be in danger from a rampaging beast of a wildfire to the northeast.

As of early on Monday, June 3 (this paper’s absolute deadline), this was the situation, more or less:

Rain was falling, and seldom in the history of precipitation has it been more welcome. This was also the day High Level evacuees were going home. The giant Chuckegg Creek Fire was far from under control, but officials were confident it would stay out of the community.

Trout Lake, Chipewyan Lake, Marten Beach and Wabasca-Desmarais remained evacuated, though with the rain pouring down, that could change early this week. How much rain, and how widespread, was not known at press time.

Causing all that disruption northeast of Slave Lake was a group of fires called the McMillan Complex. It stood at well over 200,000 hectares burned as of late on June 2.

What follows is our attempt to cover the situation as it unfolded over the week, starting hot, dry and smoky on May 27 and ending calm and wet on the morning of June 3.

The fires
On Wednesday, Fire #49 pushed eastwards to within a few kilometres of Wabasca, forcing the evacuation of that community. People on the move from there started trickling into Slave Lake on Thursday, as that community filled with smoke from the same fire.

The two big fires northeast of Slave Lake, as of 2:00 p.m. May 31, as depicted on a map supplied by Alberta Ag & Forestry.

Marten Beach residents were put on evacuation alert the same morning and evacuated later that day. Fire #49 – part of what was dubbed ‘McMillan Complex’ had also traveled south and east that day.

It slowed down for a couple of days – not much happened and ground was gained in containing it. But Sunday afternoon it roared up again, blowing eastward before the west wind. A huge mushroom cloud was visible from Slave Lake over the Marten Hills – looking much the same as the one two weeks earlier when the thing started, only blowing in the other direction.

A fire south of Trout Lake that started on May 26 was getting a lot of attention early in the week. The Peerless/Trout First Nation had its members on an evacuation alert – just to be in the safe side. But according to Lovequist Fire #69 – dubbed the Maria Lake Fire – didn’t grow on its second or third day and was steady at 300 hectares. However winds from the west did push it eastwards on May 28 and its size on the morning of May 29 was reported at 600 ha. Later that morning, the size was estimated at 2,800 ha. with most of the growth towards the northeast. It had not gotten any closer to Trout Lake. But with the wind switching to the east/southeast on Friday, the picture changed and Trout Lake residents were ordered to evacuate.

Meanwhile, Fire #50 – the smaller of two fires north of Hwy. 754 that started on May 18 – was declared as ‘being held’ early last week. Its neighbour – the much larger Fire #49 – grew to 57,000 hectares early last week. When the winds finally shifted into the west and southwest, it caused a lot of smoke to blow into Wabasca. The fire’s easternmost point Tuesday was at Mistehae Lake. That’s something between 20 and 25 kilometres west of Wabasca, but considerably closer to Reserve 166B. Wednesday morning’s update had the fire at 74,000 hectares. The fire grew eastward that day, as noted, and resulted in an evacuation order for Wabasca, Desmarais and the Bigstone First Nation. On May 29 and 30 it ran before north and northwesterly winds, crossing Hwy. 754 and getting into the Marten Hills. It was that movement that prompted officials to call for the evacuation of Marten Beach.

“Yesterday’s fire behaviour was extreme,” said fire information officer Leah Lovequist in her 7:00 p.m. update on May 30.

How smoky was it last Thursday? This gives a pretty good idea.

Fire 49 grew to an estimated 134,000 hectares on that day, prompting an eight-hour evacuation alert for Slave Lake and very smoky conditions in the community. Those conditions were not confined to Slave Lake, of course. Edmonton’s air quality was rated as bad as it could get at times on May 30.

Meanwhile, schools closed on May 31, some businesses sent their employees home, and Tolko temporarily suspended its operations at the mill east of Slave Lake.

Mayor Warman, in one of his regular online updates, mentioned that help in firefighting resources was “pouring in from all over the country.” This included the Canadian Armed Forces, whose vehicles were seen arriving in town Sunday night.

And the bizarre
The wild card in all the calculations for protecting Slave Lake, Wabasca and other communities was the possibility of new fire starts. Given the conditions, anything seemed possible. So when a fire broke out south of Widewater on the night of May 30, the response was quick and decisive. The last thing anyone needed was yet another out-of-control wildfire on yet another flank.

Things went from simply tense to very weird when on June 1 Slave Lake RCMP announced a body had been found near the site of the Widewater fire.

“While putting out this fire, a body was discovered at the scene,” said the June 2 release from Cpl. Curtis Peters.

Police identified the dead man as Darren Dawson, aged 30 and “an Alberta resident.” An autopsy was scheduled for this Tuesday. Police did not speculate on how long Mr. Dawson had been dead, or missing, or what the cause of death might have been.

Evacuees in Slave Lake
“People are housed and fed,” said Warman. “And we appreciate the community stepping up and putting on activities for the evacuees.”

Many of these were on the May 25 weekend, but they continued into the week. West Fraser threw a big barbecue on the Monday evening (May 27) at Hilda Eben Park in Slave Lake for evacuees and others. Local band The Drivers provided live entertainment, and kids were having fun playing volleyball, soccer and other games.

This followed a similar event in Schurter Park on May 25, put on by the Slave Lake Filipino Community Association. It also featured free food and live music. On the same day, the Wesleyan Church put on a barbecue event at its 5th St. NW location. No doubt there were other special events.

The Northern Gateway Motorcycle Association pitched too, buying ice cream vouchers from Alimo’s Pizzeria for a few hundred evacuees.

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army was serving up free meals to evacuees all week from its big food truck at the MRC parking lot. Right next to it was a BMO unit from Calgary, offering ATM service to its evacuated customers, as well as computer services.

Things had slowed down mid-week at the food bank at the Slave Lake Native Friendship Centre – at least partly because of the government money that many evacuees had in their pockets by then. But the food bank (which had donated items other than food as well) was still open and still helping any evacuees who asked for it. Donations of items were coming in from all points of the compass, including Fort McMurray, said executive director Barb Courtorielle.

Another aspect of the evacuee/fire story is how it led to events being postponed or relocated.

The Coalition on Homelessness meeting – scheduled for May 30 at the Friendship Centre – was postponed to a date to be determined. The annual general meeting of Alberta TrailNet was to have been held in Slave Lake on June 1, but that was scrapped and the event shifted at the last minute to Edmonton.

A gun show booked at the multi-rec centre for the first weekend in June was canceled. Graduation ceremonies for St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Academy in Slave Lake were also postponed, for a week.
Finally, the community clean-up event for Devonshire Beach on June 1 was postponed – new date TBA.

Barbecues with bands

We ran out of space last week when these photos would have been more timely. Above, the local band The Drivers entertains evacuees from High Level at a barbecue put on in Hilda Eben Park by West Fraser.
Below, another band does the same thing at Schurter Park at a barbecue put on for evacuees by the Slave Lake Filipino Association.

Share this post

Post Comment