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William and Catherine walk through fire-ravaged town of Slave Lake

The Duke of Cambridge surveys fire damage in Slave Lake, Alta., on Wednesday, July 6, 2011.

THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jonathan Hayward

Having struck a lighter tone during two recent stops, the Royal tour shifted gears today as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge toured through the fire-ravaged central Alberta town of Slave Lake.

The royal couple arrived at around noon, immediately boarding a minibus and heading for a residential neighbourhood in the southeast part of town most devastated by the fire.

As the royal couple walked down the streets with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee and Denny Garratt, reeve of Lesser Slave River, they asked many questions. At one point, Prince William reached down to examine the ash and rubble, then studied the ash dust on his hands.

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The stop was officially announced only a day earlier so as to minimize the effect of the storm of media and admirers that follow Prince William and Catherine's every move, but has been in planning for several weeks. The royals will spend two hours on a brief tour and meetings with first responders, displaced residents and other political leaders.

The couple later travelled to a local college to meet with some residents who lost their homes. The Duchess - wearing blue pants, a blue blazer and ruffled cream blouse - and Prince William -in grey pants, a blue blazer and a blue shirt - offered brief waves to the crowd before walking inside. Much of the crowd, which was made up of a few thousand people, missed them altogether, as their small bus blocked the view.

"Certainly, it was brought to our attention of the Royal Highnesses the devastation... and certainly it did not escape them that Slave Lake was on the flight path," said Kevin MacLeod, Canada's secretary to the Queen who is leading the tour organization effort.

A forest fire, stoked by high winds, swept into Slave Lake on Sunday, May 15, destroying or severely damaging more than 400 buildings, including City Hall. The Insurance Bureau of Canada announced Tuesday the Slave Lake fire was the second most expensive of Canada's disasters, with insured damages totalling $700-million.

In Slave Lake, the early crowds began arriving around 4 a.m. - eager for a one-day reprieve from a rebuild expected to take two years.

"It's just a good thing for the town," says Jodi Livingston, 34, standing with her husband and two children, pressed against the barrier with a "Welcome to Slave Lake Prince William and Kate" sign.

"I think it's bringing us closer together," she added. "But people are starting to worry about winter."

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Demolition hasn't begun on many houses destroyed in the town, much less reconstruction, and recent sporadic flooding has hampered efforts for some. Denise Camarneiro, 40, is still living in an RV with her husband and two children at the local campground after losing their home to the fire. They're also running their scaffolding business from the campground.

On Wednesday, Ms. Camarneiro stood clutching flowers, hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal couple.

"It's hope. It has just been one thing after another," she said. "For them to take the time out of their personal schedule to drop by little Slave Lake, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

The visit drew admirers from across the region, including Edmonton, which is about two-and-a-half hours away.

"I think there's lots of people that drove up," said Lisa Putters, 67, who made the drive Wednesday to visit friends. She hopes to also catch sight of the Duke and Duchess. "Just a glimpse," she says. "We'll maybe never see them again."

The town is rebuilding, but many questions about the fire remain unanswered. Mr. Stelmach has said the government may review what happened that day, when a provincial agency (created in the wake of the province's last major urban forest fire) was in charge of emergency management but did not issue any evacuation order before fire swept into the city of about 7,000.

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Residents of Slave Lake's eastern edge fled their homes with nothing as debris rained down and radio broadcasts still urged them not to evacuate. The station eventually went down, and the province, which had still closed the highways out of town due to risk, had no contingency plan to alert residents. The province, which evacuated surrounding communities a day earlier, said the wind simply moved too quickly.

In Canada Day remarks earlier on his tour, Prince William expressed his support for response efforts for flooded communities in Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and for Slave Lake.

"...They expressed a desire to go into Slave Lake and meet with the rescue workers, to meet with the families, and see first-hand the devastation that has affected that community, and hopefully wish them well as they go about reconstructing their lives and their community," Mr. MacLeod said. The visit was kept quiet so as not to "somehow detract from those people who are now putting in place all the reconstruction efforts," he added.

The royals won't speak to the public during their brief stop, instead meeting privately with residents. Mr. Stelmach praised their decision to come to the central Alberta city.

"Throughout the royal tour, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have demonstrated that they are caring and compassionate people who love this country," the Premier said in a written statement released by his office. "The fires that ravaged Slave Lake and the surrounding area began as a tragedy, but have turned into a story highlighting the strength, determination and courage of Slave Lake and area residents as they rebuild their fire ravaged town. I look forward to joining the royal couple in Slave Lake on Wednesday as emergency workers and families share in the remarkable stories of hope that have emerged from the ashes of Slave Lake."

The Duke and Duchess's arrival comes after a day of events Tuesday in the Northwest Territories. They attended a public event in Yellowknife, where the Prince wowed the crowd by picking up a hockey stick and, earlier, speaking briefly in two aboriginal languages. On Tuesday evening, they went to the remote Blachford Lake Lodge, east of Yellowknife, to meet with Canadian Rangers (a military reservist group made up mainly of aboriginal members spread across the vast north), Dene aboriginal leaders and cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Leona Aglukkaq.

At the lodge, Prince William was given a knife made by Yukon blade maker George Roberts, has a steel blade and a handle made out of linen and phenolic resin. The Duchess was given a bright red Ranger sweatshirt and also made an honourary Ranger. The royals put the sweatshirts on for a group picture with the Rangers.

"It's a good look," said Prince William, looking at Catherine as she pulled the red sweatshirt over her head.

The Duchess seemed taken with a pair of beaded moccasins presented to her by youngsters. "Thank you very much. We will treasure these," she said. The couple's official gift from the territory was diamond cufflinks and, for the Duchess, a diamond brooch, each shaped like polar bears and made with 692 stones. Diamond mining is a staple of the territorial economy.

After touring Slave Lake Wednesday, they'll then begin a 27-hour private window in their tour, appearing next at a ceremony at the Calgary airport Thursday afternoon. The Canadian tour ends Friday.

With files from The Canadian Press

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Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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