Royal frenzy hits fire-ravaged Slave Lake as residents ready for surprise visit

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SLAVE LAKE, Alta. - Dwayne Verschoor has made a welcome sign big enough that Prince William and Kate should be able to see it from the sky.

The oil and gas operator from Slave Lake assembled friends and family and provided cases of red spray paint to scrawl a greeting in a grassy field next to the airport where the couple's plane is to touch down this morning.

"If they fly in from the west, they should see it," Verschoor said.

He planned on making the mammoth "Welcome Will and Kate" sign when rumours started circulating days ago that the royals would be stopping in the Alberta town, about 280 kilometres north of Edmonton.

The surprise visit was announced Tuesday by officials who said the couple wanted to see the town and meet rescue workers and families who lost everything when a wildfire swept through the town in May.

Verschoor's own home was destroyed and he's helping others rebuild. He said he can't believe the royals are actually coming.

"It's a pretty big honour and a privilege even for them to think of us over here in a small little town."

The wind-whipped forest fire forced 7,000 people to flee and reduced about 400 homes and businesses to ash and debris.

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.

Scharf 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.

She said she plans to hunker down and wait on the blackened lot where her house once stood, hoping to catch a glimpse of the royals when they tour the fire zone by minibus.

The couple will also mingle with residents, firefighters, Mounties and emergency medical workers at a local college.

After two hours on the ground, Will and Kate will head off for a day-long retreat at an undisclosed location. They are to conclude their tour at the Stampede in Calgary on Friday.

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."

Fiddler said she was two when her mother stood her along a highway near Lac La Biche to wave at the Queen in 1978.

The jewelry saleswoman has to miss this royal visit, though, because she is travelling for work. But she's making sure her daughter Kayleigh will be on the royal stakeout.

The seven-year-old girl is fascinated by Kate and watched the royal wedding on TV in April.

"I'm really excited to see my granddaughter's eyes," said Fiddler's mother, Linda Beeston, who wants to make sure the child will be at the front of the line to see the couple.

Like many business owners in town, Beeston plans to close her Patchwork Fabrics shop during the visit.

"I'll just lock the door and walk away for a couple of hours," she said with a laugh. "I have to make sure Kayleigh's in there right like a dirty little shirt."

Beeston said she would have handmade a quilt for Kate it there'd been more warning about the royal stopover.

She has spearheaded a Blanketing Slave Lake with Love project, collecting about 500 donated quilts from across Canada to give to those affected by the fire.

Geographic location: Slave Lake

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