Image: A fire fighter searches for hot spots at a destroyed neighborhood in Slave Lake
Todd Korol  /  Reuters
A firefighter searches for hot spots at a destroyed neighborhood in Slave Lake, Alberta, on Monday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/16/2011 7:00:30 PM ET 2011-05-16T23:00:30

A wildfire blazing through a northern Canadian town forced the evacuation of nearly 7,000 people, with many fleeing with just a few belongings before buildings were consumed — including the town hall and the main shopping mall.

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Nearly a third of the buildings in Slave Lake were destroyed Sunday after strong winds suddenly turned the flames towards the town in Alberta Province, police said.

All residents were ordered to leave Sunday afternoon, but evacuation proved difficult as smoke and fast-moving flames blocked some of the highways. By Monday, however, 95 percent of residents were said to have fled.

"It was certainly a surreal experience seeing the flames against the night sky," Geoffrey Driscoll was quoted by the Calgary Herald as saying. "We could see behind us parts of the town on fire."

"We just dropped everything," said Verna Irvine. "Houses were going up," added her daughter Karen Maggrah.

It was "like watching an oil fire. Black as black can be," Scott Sieben told the Canadian Press.

Some fled to a town 80 miles away. No deaths or injuries have been reported.

As of early Monday, 116 wildfires were burning in Alberta, 39 of them out of control, the provincial government said. A total of 206 square miles had been burned.

Warm, dry and windy conditions were fueling the blazes, which were cutting a swathe across central Alberta.

The government deployed 1,000 firefighters, 100 helicopters and 20 water bombers to battle the blazes. In addition, 200 more firefighters were expected to arrive from other Canadian provinces.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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