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Royal visit keeps fire-ravaged Slave Lake’s ordeal in the spotlight

By some measures, things could be worse for Dion and Yolande Klyne. They're safe, as are their two children and their pets. That's it.

Everything else is gone, lost to a forest fire that swept through the northern Alberta town of Slave Lake nearly two months ago, destroying the Klyne home and more than 300 others. The family is still searching for long-term accommodation.

On Wednesday, the Klynes seized a brief reprieve from the rebuild that lies ahead. They donned "I Love Slave Lake" T-shirts and stood, as early as 4:30 a.m., pressed against a barrier at a local college – all for a glimpse of Will and Kate.

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"Let's forget about everything and just focus on the royals are coming," said Ms. Klyne, 33, breaking into a wide smile. "If they feel we're important enough to come and visit, I think they're important enough to make them feel welcome."

It paid off. After meeting with displaced residents and emergency crews inside Northern Lakes College, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge came out to greet an ecstatic crowd of thousands – with Prince William heading straight for the Klynes.

"I just couldn't stop crying. I don't know why. I feel a little embarrassed," Ms. Klyne said later. "I just said: 'We lost our home in the fire, and it means so much you came today.' For me, it's huge. And hopefully, being in the media spotlight, it's a big shot in the arm, too, with the rebuild."

The royal couple announced the Slave Lake leg of their Canadian visit only a day earlier. They toured the worst-hit area, where entire blocks have been reduced to rubble, stopping together to examine one burned-out car. The visit touched many in the town, which had 7,000 residents before the fire.

"I think it was great, wonderful. We feel the world cares about what happened to us," said Joy James, 82, who lost her home and was among several dozen people who met privately with the royal couple inside the college. Kate, who wore navy jeans and a blazer, was "a little soft-spoken for my hearing aid, but otherwise she was very nice," Ms. James said.

The two-hour visit has once again put Slave Lake in the spotlight – revealing a rebuilding process that is crawling along or, in many cases, hasn't yet begun. Officials are still scrambling to try to solve a looming housing crisis. Come fall, when the weather begins to cool and children are set to return to class, the town needs 350 temporary homes.

"We're seriously concerned if we don't have housing in place this fall, we're going to lose a part of our community," said Mayor Karina Pillay-Kinnee.

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With the royal couple came Premier Ed Stelmach, and therein lies the other half of what locals say is the visit's two-pronged benefit: In addition to boosting morale, the royal stopover reminds the province's leaders and residents that Slave Lake still needs help.

"I think it [the visit] is good to bring awareness that some people are still having a hard time. Everyone is worried for winter," said Rob Livingston, who arrived early with his wife and two children and met both William and Kate.

"I think it just boosts our morale, lifts our spirits, gives us the hope to keep going," the mayor added.

Many questions remain about what happened the weekend of the fire. The surrounding area was evacuated on Saturday, May 14. The next day, the province's Emergency Management Agency – created in the wake of the last major urban wildfire, in Chisholm, about 60 kilometres southeast of Slave Lake – was co-ordinating response in the town. The fire roared into Slave Lake, closing the highways and trapping people. The local radio station's signal was knocked out and confusion reigned. At the time, no evacuation had been ordered. Days later, the province maintained that an order to evacuate had been issued on Sunday night, but by then the roads had been closed.

The province has already spent $77-million of a promised $100-million, and expects to spend more. Insurance claims total $700-million, second only to Eastern Canada's 1998 ice storm.

With thousands of people displaced and costs mounting, Mr. Stelmach said Wednesday the province will conduct a formal review of what happened the night of the fire, and whether its Emergency Management Agency could have moved more swiftly.

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"I'm not going to pull people off firefighting assignments to do a total review [during the summer], but there will be a review," the Premier said.

The royal couple left Slave Lake around 2 p.m. Citing "self-evident reasons of privacy and security," a spokesman declined to comment on rumours that the pair were heading to a lodge near Lake Louise in the Rocky Mountains. Their public schedule resumes in Calgary on Thursday afternoon.

But in Slave Lake, the work is far from over. Residents said the visit was a respite for them, and a reminder to the country that the town isn't yet back on its feet. "Just because the big fire, the event, is over, it doesn't mean we don't need help," said Erica Bakewell, 29, who met the royal couple and gave Kate flowers. "There's still so much to do here."

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