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Alberta Wildfires Cause First Nations Evacuations, Devastate Slave Lake

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Alberta remains under a province-wide fire ban in the wake of wildfires that leveled nearly half of the town of Slave Lake, whose 7,000 residents were evacuated on Sunday night and Monday.

Several First Nations communities also had been evacuated as of May 24, said Alberta government spokeswoman Marie Iwanow: Gift Lake Métis Settlement, where 1,300 people live, according to its website; Sawridge First Nation, Loon River First Nation, Woodland Cree First Nation, the Municipal District of Opportunity (Red Earth, Red Earth Creek) and Whitefish Lake First Nation.

“All remain evacuated with the exception of Whitefish Lake First Nation,” Iwanow told Indian Country Today Media Network via e-mail on May 24. “The evacuation order for that community has been lifted, but residents remain on a two-hour evacuation notice, as there are still active forest fires in the region.”

Several oil fields have had to shut down as fire threatened forest near the notorious Alberta oil sands, The Wall Street Journal reported. The newspaper said that Royal Dutch Shell Group PLC's Canadian division was halting production at two fields affected by the fire. Together they produced about 10,000 barrels a day last year, the Wall Street Journal said. Canadian Ltd. Told the newspaper that 1,300 workers had been evacuated from one facility in the face of the flames but that firefighters had so far protected its site. Oil production in another area that was also near the fires got shut down as well, and Pengrowth Energy Corp. said it had shut in 5,000 barrels a day of production, the Wall Street Journal said.

Besides the First Nations communities and Slave Lake, the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River was also evacuated, Iwanow said. Evacuation centers have been set up to provide accommodations, meals and other services to the displaced, who are staying in hotels and other interim locations until more permanent housing is available.

“Efforts continue to make the evacuated communities safe to allow for a safe, orderly return of residents,” the government said. “Essential services staff have been working round the clock in the affected communities to restore power, water, natural gas and other services, as well as extinguish lingering hot spots and remove other hazards so residents can return as quickly as possible.”

Alberta’s government has already responded with disaster relief. Immediately after the fires, on May 18, Premier Ed Stelmach allocated $50 million for disaster recovery, according to the province’s website, and payments have been given out to families made homeless by the blazes.

He also has appointed a Deputy Minister Task Force to coordinate recovery efforts, the province said.

“The unprecedented wildfire disaster in Slave Lake and the surrounding area has touched all Albertans,” said Stelmach in a statement. “This funding is an important first step on the road to rebuilding the community.”

Volunteer efforts are also under way, with the Treaty 8 Nations leading the charge. The tribes held a barbecue to drum up funds and donations of household goods and clothing.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said that as of May 23, 29 fires were burning in Alberta, with four of them still out of control. Manitoba and the Northwest Territories were also under fire watch at levels 2 and 3, with Alberta on level 4 and Saskatchewan in high enough fire danger to warrant a level 5 alert level, NASA said, quoting Environment Canada.