- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2011

SLAVE LAKE, ALBERTA (AP) - Prince William and Kate made a detour from their official itinerary Wednesday so they could visit the northern Alberta town of Slave Lake, heavily damaged by a wildfire in May.

The royal couple was scheduled to tour devastated neighborhoods by minibus and meet with residents, firefighters and a rescue crew.

Slave Lake was not on the official royal itinerary, but the couple wanted to make the trip 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 the town on May 15.

The newlyweds are on the seventh day of their nine-day trip to Canada, part of the first official overseas trip for the couple who wed on April 29. After the Slave Lake visit, they will depart for some private time at an undisclosed location before their next official stop in Calgary late Thursday afternoon. Wednesday was originally scheduled to be a day of rest.

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.

People eager for a glimpse of the royal visitors started gathering in the early morning hours outside a local college they will visit and were pressed four and five deep against the barricades.

“It is very, very exciting for our town and our community,” resident Shauna Fiddler said. “It will hopefully lift the spirits of many people who have had their spirits quite dampened.”

Dwayne Verschoor, whose home was destroyed, said he can’t believe the royals made a point of coming to visit.

“It’s a pretty big honor and a privilege even for them to think of us over here in a small little town,” he said.

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 of the royal visit has spread all through Slave Lake.

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