Wednesday, July 6, 2011

-Couple visit Slave Lake, where 40 per cent of the town was destroyed by fire in May
-Duke and Duchess spend over an hour meeting displaced residents and seeing damage
-Visit kept under wraps to avoid hampering the clean up operation
-Request to visit the town came directly from the Royal couple, aide confirms

By Rebecca English

Witnessing the devastation: William and Kate are shown around Slave Lake by a pair of guides after making an unscheduled stop at the town which was devastated by fire

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made an unscheduled visit today to a town almost entirely reduced to ashes by forest fires less than two months ago.

Some 40 per cent of Slave Lake in Northern Alberta was razed when ground when it was hit by a wildfire on May 15.

Fortunately there were no deaths in the town, named after the First Nations People there known as the Slavey.

Gutted: The Royal couple examine the remains of a burnt out car destroyed during May's fire

Destroyed: Prince William looks at the twisted remains of a car that was caught in the fire

Wreckage: William and Kate examine a piece of damaged metal from the fire with Ed Stelmech (left) and City Reeve Denny Garratt

But the damage was extensive and forced the complete evacuation of Slave Lake's 7,000 residents - the largest such displacement in the province's history.

The inferno began as a forest fire 15 kilometers outside town. Firefighters battled to keep in under control and had thought they were winning the fight when the wind turned violent and gusts of up to 100 km per hour whipsawed glowing embers overhead and on to homes and businesses which quickly ignited.

Most of the destruction happened in the south-eastern section of town - where half the homes were consumed by flames - as well as the mall, town hall and many downtown businesses.

Almost all 7,000 residents were evacuated from the town, with hundreds going to evacuation shelters in nearby towns including Edmonton.

The Duke and Duchess flew into the town on Wednesday on a government Challenger jet.

The couple stepped off their jet and were greeted by a small line of dignitaries.

Picture perfect: Fans used their cameras to capture their memories of the day, while Kate appeared to take something from one member of the crowd

Well-wishers: William greets some of the hundreds of people who turned out in Slave Lake today

Royal wave: Prince William salutes the crowd that had gathered to see him and his wife in the town

Kate was wearing the same navy designer blazer she wore to depart the UK, her favoured pair of skin tight jeans and Pied A Terre black wedges with a cream ruffled chiffon shirt. William was smart but casual in jeans and a blazer.

The couple immediately headed off in a mini bus to see the devastation first hand and meet with displaced residents.

The request to tour the devastated town came directly from the royal couple, said Kevin MacLeod, Canadian secretary to the Queen.

But it was kept under wraps until the last minute to ensure their presence wouldn't disrupt any relief efforts in the region.

‘It wasn't a last-minute decision,’ he said. ‘Their overwhelming concern was that they did not want a public announcement early on for fear that it would somehow detract from those people who are now putting in place all the reconstruction efforts.’

Chat: The Duke and Duchess meet with a group of residents whose homes were destroyed in the fire

The sign says it all: Two residents of Slave Lake welcome Prince William and his wife to their town

We love you: Most of the town turned out to see the couple, with fans also making placards to welcome them

Special guest: Even a resident's corgi turned up to meet William and Kate

William has made a point to visit disaster torn regions in the Commonwealth, notably Christchurch, New Zealand, hit by an earthquake in February.

The Duke and Duchess spent an hour and a half touring areas of the town which were affected by the fire and visited Northern Lakes College, where they met with emergency services personnel from the fire brigade, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the medical response team.

Their Royal Highnesses also had a private meeting with families affected by the disaster, still reeling from their loss of their homes and livelihoods.

Most of Slave Lake's residents turned out to catch a glimpse of Kate and William.

Families stood in the baking sunshine outside the town's Northern Lakes College waving flowers, posters and balloons.

Banners read ‘We love you for coming’ and ‘Welcome Will and Kate’.

Arrival: The Royal couple leave their jet after touching down at Slave Lake airport ahead of their visit to the town

Meet and greet: The Duke and Duchess are welcomed by dignitaries after their arrival in Slave Lake

Unscheduled stop: Prince William and Kate pose at Yellowknife airport before their flight to Slave Lake

Recycling her clothes: Kate wore the same navy designer blazer she chose to depart the UK, her favoured pair of skin tight jeans and Pied A Terre black wedges with a cream ruffled chiffon shirt.

At the front of the crowd was Maria Sharpe, 28, who lost most of her possessions when the devastating fire struck.

One of the only mementos she has left of her home is a photograph taken on Royal Wedding day when she and her friends had a party to celebrate Kate and William tying the knot.

She brought the picture to show the royal couple.

Maria said: ‘This picture is special to me because it is a reminder of my home.
‘It was an awful thing to happen.

‘But in some ways it turned the community into a family.

Preparing to depart: A Canadian Air Force member salutes the Duke as he and wife board their Challenger jet for the flight to Slave Lake

Caring: The Duchess chatted with six-year-old Riley Oldford who also presented her with a bouquet of flowers before her departure

Please to meet you: Prince William speaks to Riley and tries to shake his hand

‘And being gathered here with everyone today to meet Kate and William to welcome them here brings us even closer.

‘We heard a few rumours they might be coming but to actually have them here is incredible.’

Denise Camarneiro, 40, her husband Mario, 50, and their two children Nikita, 10, and Tyler, 12, had their home completely destroyed in the fire.

Denise said: ‘Ours was the third home to burn down.

‘We were told by authorities we had ten minutes to evacuate and we left with just the clothes on our backs and our three dogs and our guinea pig.

Suits you, Sir: Canadian soldiers load clothes belonging to Prince William onto their jet

Same rules for everyone: A sniffer dog exams the luggage before it is loaded onto the jet used by the Royal couple

‘At the time it feels like the worst thing that can ever happen to you.
‘Soon we will have been homeless for two months.

‘Having Kate and William take time out of their schedule to come here is such a boost for this community.

‘They seem very compassionate.

‘Kate reminds me a lot of Diana.’


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