07/06/2011 08:43 EDT | Updated 09/05/2011 05:12 EDT

William And Kate In Slave Lake: Canada Trip Makes Surprise Detour To Fire-Ravaged Town (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

The Canadian Press

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- 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.

Blocks and blocks of burned-out cars, blackened trees and twisted debris. The remains of what had once been family homes — reduced to charred basement foundations.

Photos from The Royal visit to Slave Lake. Story continues below slideshow:

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge 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 one 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.

The stark environment may have reminded some of a trip William's mother made to Angola, shortly before she died, as an ambassador for a Red Cross anti-landmines campaign. A picture of a wind-burned Diana picking her way through the sand while she wore a flak jacket and protective head gear — a clear mask covering her famous face — flashed around the world.

After about 20 minutes, William and Kate were driven 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 also met privately for about 20 minutes with firefighters, RCMP officers and emergency workers.

Janet Parks, one of the residents who met the couple, clutched a British flag as she explained to Kate that she came to Slave Lake from Yorkshire 29 years ago. Kate told her that her grandfather was from Yorkshire, too, and they chatted about England and the fire that destroyed Parks's home.

"She said she was amazed how the heat of the fire ... melted the metal," Parks said.

It was a thrill to meet the royals, she added, although "it was a high price to pay to lose our homes."

Terry O'Keeffe thanked William for visiting on what was supposed to be a rest day. She also told the prince he would have fun at his next official stop in Calgary.

"He said he wasn't looking forward to putting on cowboy boots," she laughed.

Will and Kate emerged for a walkabout to the delight of about 3,000 people who had waited for hours under a scorching sun. Some could be heard singing "O Canada."

The royal couple made the detour to Slave Lake to boost the morale of residents who face the daunting task of rebuilding their fire-scarred town. The town 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.

Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee spent much of the fire-zone tour talking with Kate.

"She was interested ... in how people are going to start building their homes and where families are now, how many people have been displaced," the mayor said.

"She was very concerned. She really focused on how are we going to get going on the reconstruction and rebuild. It was an amazing, amazing moment."

Pillay-Kinnee said there was no doubt the visit, which took only a few hours of the couple's time, has left a lasting impression.

"This is something (residents) will be talking about for years and years. We're just so proud.

"To give them that inspiration to keep going after what we've gone through — Slave Lake needed that and I have to thank the royal couple for taking that time."

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 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."

The surprise visit was announced Tuesday by officials who said the couple wanted to see the fire's aftermath and meet with residents.

Not everyone 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.

William and Kate left mid-afternoon for some private time at an undisclosed location before their next official stop in Calgary on Thursday.