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Arson behind fire that ravaged Slave Lake: government

The remains of houses are seen in Slave Lake, Alta., on May 17, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESSIan Jackson.

The Alberta government says it believes arson was behind a wildfire that ravaged the town of Slave Lake last spring.

Sustainable Resource Development Minister Frank Oberle says the province’s investigation files have been turned over to the RCMP.

Oberle says the force will determine whether a criminal investigation is needed.

The provincial investigation took more than five months.

“Our investigation took the time required to protect, collect, analyze and document evidence to the rigorous standards required for preparation in a court of law,” Oberle said.

Deputy Commissioner Dale McGowan, commanding officer of the Alberta RCMP, said investigators with the serious crimes branch in Edmonton are conducting the review and will have control of any subsequent investigation.

He could not say how long that will take.

“The RCMP has a very keen understanding of the devastation caused by this fire,” said McGowan. “I want to reassure the citizens of Alberta that a thorough review of the (Sustainable Resources) report is a matter of high priority for the RCMP.”

Slave Lake is still struggling to get back on its feet after the mid-May forest fire that was whipped by 100-km/h winds and engulfed one-third of the community. It torched 400 homes and businesses and left 2,000 people homeless.

Total damage was pegged at $700 million, which insurance adjusters estimate makes it the second-costliest disaster next to the Quebec-Ontario ice storm of 1998, which cost about $1.8 billion.

The fire forced all 7,000 residents of the town, 250 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, to leave for two weeks as fire crews completed their salvage work and police secured the area.

No one was hurt, but a fire-fighting helicopter pilot crashed on Lesser Slave Lake and died. There were 1,400 firefighters deployed along with 170 helicopters and tankers.

Images of entire neighbourhoods razed to ash, homes reduced to charred cement foundations, were beamed around the world. In July, Prince William and his wife Kate made an impromptu visit during their cross-Canada tour to show support.

The aftermath raised questions over how the evacuation was carried out. Residents wanted to know why they were not given ample warning to leave. Some who left on their own were forced to turn around when roads were closed.

Days after the fire, the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, said it did not recommend an evacuation, then later reversed its position and said it had directed Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee to do so.

Pillay-Kinnee said the province ordered the evacuation after 6 p.m. on that fateful Sunday, but by then heavy smoke had closed the access roads out of town.

Municipalities are responsible for ordering evacuations but are dependent on information and fire updates from the province.

Communities around Slave Lake had been evacuated a day earlier, but town residents were told online and by radio that they were safe — even as fire began destroying the town.

The province delivered almost $300 million in aid, including millions for modular homes for residents who lost everything. Money was also delivered to surrounding communities that set up evacuation centres.

In August, the province announced an independent review of how well it fought the fire and on the overall effectiveness of its fire management programs. It is led by Bill Sweeney, a one-time RCMP senior deputy commissioner.