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Slave Lake family calls evacuation a 'miracle'

The wildfire in Slave Lake remained out of control and had burned approximately 4,558 hectares as of May 19.

The wildfire in Slave Lake remained out of control and had burned approximately 4,558 hectares as of May 19.

Due to an early deadline, that was the latest information available from Sustainable Resources Development regarding the fires surrounding Slave Lake. It forced the town’s 7,000 residents to flee to evacuation centres in Westlock, Athabasca and Edmonton including the family of Marilyn and Martin Engler. Marilyn is sister to Mayor Brian Schulz, Barrhead Composite High School teacher Lori Sagbo, retired teacher Ruth-Ann Bohn and Kelowna, B.C., resident Karen Facette. Marilyn and Martin spent the majority of last week volunteering their time in Westlock to help out with relief efforts after a harrowing escape from their community.

On May 14, Marilyn and Martin were making their way back home after spending some time in the Westlock area. On their way, they noticed smoke west and south of Slave Lake, but seeing as how the community had experienced forest fires before, they weren’t alarmed by the notion of a fire. It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that things literally started to heat up.

“We had spent the night at our cabin about 30 km north of town,” Martin said. “Sunday morning, we came back to town and went to church, while the kids stayed back at the cabin. It looked like for all intents and purposes that firefighters had the fires under control, and it looked the way you would expect it to look after a night of fire.”

Then the sky turned black, and the wind was very intense and as residents watched, the wind shifted and the smoke started toward town, Martin said. It was at this time they decided to get in their vehicles and head toward Barrhead, where their daughter attended school.

“I just wanted the family to be together, and not on opposite sides of the fire,” Martin said.

When they arrived at the corner of Highways 88 and 2, it was closed in all directions. While they waited, the fire situation took another turn for the worse. The grass in the field near where they stopped started to burn, and the flames started moving closer to town. Shortly after that, one of the highways heading east opened up and Marilyn drove through smoke so thick it was difficult to see the road at times, Martin said.

The drive was intense with embers falling on the car and the sound of trees popping from the fire, Martin said. Eventually, they were able to make it out of the burning town and arrived on May 15 in Barrhead around 8:30 p.m.

“It was stressful and amazing,” Martin said. “I believe it was a miracle that 7,000 people got out of that town unharmed. I’m so thankful to God for that.”

While being interviewed by the Leader, Marilyn and Martin still weren’t sure whether their home was still standing, but others had told them that the fire had not touched it.

After attending a meeting by the mayor of Slave Lake, Martin said it looks like it could be weeks before anyone is allowed back into the town.

Marilyn said she and her husband are coping well enough with the situation, but their children were not doing so well with all the uncertainty and emotions involved.

“It was so traumatic for everyone who had to get out,” she said.

The support demonstrated by the entire community has moved them to tears at times, she said. In Barrhead, many local businesses stepped up to accept donations for the evacuees.

“It’s incredible the way the province pulled together like this.”

She said many residents will never go back to Slave Lake, but the majority has called the community home for so long, they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

The wildfire along south shore of Lesser Slave Lake also remained out of control as of May 19 and has burned 21,282 hectares.

There are presently 72 wildfires in Alberta, 19 of which are out of control. These active wildfires have burned approximately 191,000 hectares of land. In the Lesser Slave Lake area alone, 17 wildfires are burning out of control. Provincewide, Alberta has deployed approximately 1,000 Alberta firefighters, and another 400 have been imported from British Columbia and Ontario. The province has also deployed 134 helicopters, 32 air tankers and scores of heavy ground-based machines.