LAC LA BICHE - While spending time with his family camping at Beaver Lake on Saturday evening, Supt. Chris Clark, Manager of Lac La Biche County Enforcement Services, turned on his peace officer radio to hear dispatch report a 911 call of a possible funnel cloud in Lac La Biche County.
“I came out of my campsite and I looked down and there were multiple trees that were just starting to break in the wind, so I called Environment Canada told them to issue the tornado warning,” said Clark, who was able to contact the weather agency through a backline number.
Minutes later, residents across the region received an Alberta Emergency Alert at 5:27 p.m., warning of a thunderstorm that had the potential to produce a tornado and instructing nearby residents to seek shelter immediately in a basement or reinforced structure.
The storm was intense but short lived, Clark said. By the time the emergency alert went out local residents were already in the midst of the rapidly moving cell traveling 35km/h through northeast Alberta.
The delay in reporting by Environment Canada, he says, is related to a lack of weather radar in the region, but was quickly reported by residents to emergency response. By 6:58 p.m. tornado warnings had officially ended but first responders had already been deployed.
As soon as it was safe to do so, emergency crews and other government bodies responded to the aftermath of the severe storm. Fire crews were first dispatched to Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park followed by crews travelling to Beaver Lake and Touchwood campgrounds.
Crews worked with members of the public to remove fallen trees and debris that blocked the entrance to Sir Winston Churchill campground. Once the road was cleared, all campers were evacuated from the peninsula so emergency crews could confirm that all campers were accounted for and major infrastructure was intact. Campers were then allowed to return to their sites by 7:30 p.m. that evening, said Clark.
Bob Laboucane, a Golden Sands resident who witnessed the storm cells impact and subsequent aftermath told Lakeland This week, “The wind was very fast moving and strong. I think it surprised everyone, including Environment Canada... because the warning was too late, it was already here and gone.”
At times, the shear winds travelled at 100km/h taking down trees, powerlines and knocking around objects along the storm's path, according to Regional Fire Chief John Kokotilo, the Lac La Biche County’s manager of protective services and emergency management.
Kokotilo says first responders were joined by all three local fire detachments, enforcement services, Alberta Parks, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, two EMS crews who were on standby in case of injuries, and Lac La Biche County Transportation, Communication and the Information Technology Department who coordinated the relief efforts among all crews assisting on the ground.
Emergency crews, County transportation and members of the public worked to clear roads, account for residents and campers in the worst affected areas. Meanwhile, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry worked at putting out spot fires caused by lightning strikes during the storm and observed the area by helicopter, looking for possible stranded boaters and hikers.
“We did have a couple of boaters that were stranded, one on Beaver Lake and one on Lac La Biche Lake, but they were brought in safely and everything was good,” said Kokotilo, adding that only one youth had been reported to sustain minor injuries at the Beaver Lake campground after being struck by branch caught in the gusting winds.
Kokotilo says he feels fortunate that no one was severely injured and that the center of the storm did not pass through the hamlet. “If it would have went through the hamlet, there would have been much more devastation.”
Cleanup efforts are taking place around the community, including at the Lac La Biche golf course, which remained closed on Sunday. In a request for assistance from the public a message from the golf course management team wrote “There are so many trees down that the course is impassable in many areas.” Volunteers soon arrived with chainsaws and gloves to help where they could.
The cleanup will be ongoing Kokotilo says, adding that to everyone who lives or visits the area should consider downloading emergency apps that track both weather and other serious events.
Likely straight-line winds
According to meteorologist Justin Shelley with Environment and Climate Change Canada, no tornado touchdowns have been confirmed with regards to Saturday's storm.
"At this time, we believe that the event was straight-line winds," said Shelley. "The investigation is still ongoing. We are still gathering information and coordinating with the Northern Tornadoes Project as well."
Without clear pictures, videos or evidence of debris signatures, Environment Canada will be unable to confirm whether or not a tornado event occurred in Lac La Biche County, he says. However, staff and meteorologists are still working on collecting data evidence that's available.
More information could be released by Environment Canada in the coming days, depending on the results of the investigation.
*With files from Sara Aldred
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