SLAVE LAKE, Alta. - It was a royal backdrop like none other when Prince William and Kate viewed first-hand the aftermath of a fire that swept through the northern Alberta town of Slave Lake.
Burned-out cars. Blackened trees. The remains of what had once been family homes — now reduced to charred basement foundations.
Will and Kate landed Wednesday at the community's airport, where they boarded a bus with large windows for a tour of devastated neighbourhoods.
The couple walked down a street, asked many questions, and even stopped to touch one demolished car. At one point, William reached down to examine the rubble, then studied the ash on his hands.
After about 20 minutes, they headed to a local college, where a crowd that had been gathering since early morning chanted "Will and Kate" and "We Love Slave Lake."
The two waved briefly before heading inside to meet about 50 residents, who sat in plastic chairs at folding tables in the gymnasium. The duke and duchess stopped at each table to shake hands and chat. William patted one woman's shoulder.
They emerged for a walkabout to the delight of everyone waiting under a clear blue sky and a scorching sun.
The royal couple made the detour to Slave Lake with the hope of bringing some much-needed cheer to residents who face the daunting task of rebuilding their fire-scarred town. The northern Alberta community was not on the official royal itinerary, but the couple wanted to make a special stop after they left Yellowknife to show support for the many people who lost everything.
More than 400 homes and businesses — about one-third of the town — were reduced to ash and debris when a wind-whipped forest fire swept through in May.
Kate was sporting casual attire for the visit — blue pants with a wide brown belt, a ruffled cream blouse, blue blazer and wedge slingback shoes. Will appeared in grey pants, blue shirt and navy jacket.
People eager for a glimpse of the royal visitors had started gathering in the early morning hours and were pressed four and five deep against the barricades.
Some businesses closed so their employees could see the royals. One drugstore posted a pink sign on the door saying it was closed for the royal tour.
Sheri Smears came with her children and grandchildren. They were all wearing "I (Heart) SL" T-shirts and the youngsters carried signs thanking the prince and his wife for their visit.
"It's so nice to know that people think that this was a big deal," Smears said. "It's not just a little blip and I think the reason that they came here is because the people of Slave Lake have shown their spirit. Instead of whining and complaining, they are just forging ahead."
Dwayne Verschoor made a welcome sign that he hoped was big enough for the couple to see from the sky. The oil and gas operator assembled friends and family and provided cases of red spray paint to scrawl a greeting in a grassy field next to the airport.
He planned the mammoth "Welcome Will and Kate" sign when rumours started circulating days ago that the royals would be stopping in the town, about 280 kilometres north of Edmonton.
The surprise visit was announced Tuesday by officials who said the couple wanted to see the fire's aftermath and meet with residents.
Verschoor, whose own home was destroyed, has been helping others rebuild. He said he can't believe the royals made a point of coming to visit.
"It's a pretty big honour and a privilege even for them to think of us over here in a small little town."
Not everyone, however, was thrilled about the visit.
Farris Sobhani was filling up at a gas station a block away from where the crowd gathered. He said the monarchy has a history of oppressing colonies and native peoples and shouldn't be celebrated.
"It's fantastic that people are bringing attention to Slave Lake," he said. "I just think it is unfortunate that we have turned this into celebrity worship.
The fire forced 7,000 people to flee and left them wondering what — if anything — they would find upon their return. Some houses were undamaged, but others were razed and families have been forced to seek temporary accommodation. They face the challenge of rebuilding not only their houses but also the fabric of their community.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada has reported that the insured damage caused by the fire totals $700 million, making it the second costliest insured disaster in Canadian history. The ice storm that hit Quebec and Ontario in 1998 cost $1.8 billion.
Some Slave Lake residents are living in campers and mobile homes. Lucky ones, such as nursery school teacher Karen Scharf, have found rental housing. She said it's a tight squeeze with five adults, two dogs and a cat, but at least they'll have a roof over their heads for the winter.
Scharf said anticipation has spread all through Slave Lake.
"It is very, very exciting for our town and our community," added Shauna Fiddler. "It will hopefully lift the spirits of many people who have had their spirits quite dampened."
After their visit, William and Kate will spend some private time at an undisclosed location before their next official stop in Calgary late Thursday afternoon.