Crews, citizens cleaning up after severe wind storm tore through Lac La Biche Saturday

·4 min read
The entrance of Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park was blocked after strong winds tore down a tree late Saturday afternoon. (Submitted by Lucie Theroux - image credit)
The entrance of Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park was blocked after strong winds tore down a tree late Saturday afternoon. (Submitted by Lucie Theroux - image credit)

First responders and some provincial officers are cleaning up debris throughout parts of Lac La Biche County after a severe wind event tore through the area suddenly late Saturday afternoon.

Uprooted trees, broken branches and other debris are scattered around campgrounds, roadways, the local golf course and residences in Lac La Biche, a hamlet about 170 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.

Local peace officers and firefighters, including RCMP, Alberta Parks, Fish and Wildlife officers, and residents are all chipping in with the clean up. But it will likely take a couple of days to finish, said John Kokotilo, manager of protective services and regional fire chief for Lac La Biche County.

"It could have been a lot worse," he said.

"We were just very fortunate that the trees that came down did not come down on top of campers … or hit cars, because there was quite a bit of flying debris flying all over the place."

Environment Canada was notified about a system near Lac La Biche shortly after 5 p.m. But less than 15 minutes later, they received reports from local emergency management crews of damage and reports of a tornado, said meteorologist Sara Hoffman.

Radar hadn't signalled a tornado, but after receiving the calls, warnings were issued for the area, she added.

The weather agency is still investigating what happened. But based on radar readings and photos and videos submitted by the public, no tornado touched down, said Hoffman.

Instead, what likely transpired is a straight-lined wind event, she said. A common weather system in the Prairies often linked to thunderstorms, they can be as strong as some tornadoes and cover "a much larger area than a tornado ever would."

Earlier Saturday afternoon, Environment Canada had issued thunderstorm warnings for several areas, including Edmonton. It seems the thunderstorms lined up and combined with a gust front, which intensified the system. When Hoffman spoke with CBC News, winds in Lac La Biche were estimated to have been in excess of 90 km/h.

Storm happened suddenly: residents

Lucie Theroux went to Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park to pick up her daughter and two of her friends from a birthday party. The girls had just gotten off a boat from the lake and were packing up because black clouds were coming in.

Rick Flumian, who had left the park before the storm, returned when his wife called after seeing the large clouds.

"It looked like a wall coming across the lake," he said.

Within minutes, winds picked up and it got dark. The temperature dropped nearly 20 degrees and trees were snapping all around. Meanwhile, phones were sounding off from warnings of a potential tornado.

"Every time a tree would crack, it almost sounded like thunder," Theroux said.

"You would hear the big crack and then trees would just fall over like twigs."

Theroux and others trying to leave the park had to swerve around fallen trees. At one point, Theroux drove over a couple of fallen evergreens. But a large tree that fell near the exit of the park blocked their path.

Submitted by Rick Flumian
Submitted by Rick Flumian

Theroux's vehicle has a sunroof. She said she could see tall trees above the vehicle and felt nervous. She poked neck holes in garbage bags so the kids could wear them and stay warm, then they got out of the vehicle and hid in a safer spot until emergency crews arrived, she said.

Flumian, meanwhile, didn't get that far. He and others had to turn around because trees blocked the path. They hunkered down at the park's beach until crews cleared the road, because it was open and likely safer from falling debris, he said.

"It was pretty freaky," Flumian said.

"You're just hoping everybody else was safe."

Alberta Fish and Wildlife conducted boat patrols and nobody has been reported missing, according to an RCMP spokesperson. One child with minor injuries was reported to county emergency crews, said Kokotilo.

The provincial park and the Beaver Lake Campground were two of the harder hit areas. The more densely populated area was relatively unscathed, aside from general debris and some downed power lines, said Kokotilo.

Anyone with videos or photos of the weather event or damage is asked to send it to abstorm@canada.ca, as it will help with Environment Canada's investigation.

Hoffman also advises the public that it is thunderstorm season, so people should be watching the skies for rapidly developing systems once warnings are issued and have a safety plan ready.

Over a dozen severe thunderstorm watches were issued in Alberta Sunday afternoon.

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