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Canada's Top Ten Weather Stories for 2011
2. Slave Lake Burning
On Friday the 13th in May, fire weather forecasters in Alberta were shocked at what they saw – perfect breeding conditions for a fire storm with Slave Lake at the epicentre. Forest greening was delayed, aspen trees were at their most flammable point of the season and weeks of warm, dry weather had created a bone-dry forest floor. By early Sunday morning, blustery southeast winds and Sahara-dry air had sucked every bead of water from the matted grass and forest litter. So when a fire did inevitably start, the blaze, aided by 100 km/h winds, spread quickly. As the fire raged, flames circled the town. Crews couldn’t get to the scene quickly enough and, when they did, they were forced to retreat for their own safety. Inside the inferno, the flames consumed all the oxygen and the intense heat created the fire storm’s own dry lightning and thunder. The fast-spreading blaze was propelled by powerful winds, strong enough to cause power lines to short out and spark more fires. Wind gusts whipsawed glowing red-hot embers, twigs and bark overhead and on to homes and businesses that quickly ignited. Racing through Slave Lake at 70 metres per minute, the wildfire chased away most of the 7,000 residents.
One-third of the homes and businesses in Slave Lake (about 400 structures) were incinerated in the 1000°C heat – reduced to burnt concrete, twisted steel and blackened rubble. The wildfire razed the town hall, provincial government offices, library, radio station and a medical clinic. An entire subdivision in the southeast part of town was fire-stormed with only foundations and driveways remaining, possibly the largest number of private homes lost from a single event in Canadian history. Scores of families were left with nothing. Outside of town, flames consumed 220 square kilometres of timber and killed several animals. A helicopter pilot died when his fire-fighting aircraft crashed into Lesser Slave Lake.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada reported the Slave Lake wildfire was the second costliest natural disaster in Canadian history at more than $700 million, with $400 million in uninsurable losses. The most expensive insured disaster was the ice storm that hit Quebec and Ontario in 1998, which cost more than $1.8 billion. Insurers claim it was the largest wildfire loss in Canadian history. Alberta’s Premier called it the province’s worst disaster in recent memory. Unfortunately for Slave Lake residents, it didn’t end there. Three weeks after the fire storm it began to rain and wouldn’t stop. In June, there were 17 consecutive days of rain, yielding a monthly total of 200 mm – the wettest month on record for the area. Torrential rains caused flooding, leaving beleaguered residents to wonder what more could happen. They didn’t have to wait long to find out. A second deluge from July 7 to 9 dumped 100 mm of rain, washing out roads and filling basements again.
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