June 25, 2016 - 2:11 PM
FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, saw first-hand the destruction caused by last month's wildfire in Fort McMurray on Friday.
Prince Edward's wife was greeted upon her arrival at the city's airport by Gov. Gen. David Johnston and Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake. Sophie travelled with Alberta's deputy premier, Sarah Hoffman.
They then boarded a bus for a tour through the city and were given a commentary about the fire's progress by fire Chief Darby Allen.
At the destroyed neighbourhood of Beacon Hill, Sophie got off the bus and held onto a fence with her fingers while gazing at the devastation. Sophie asked about what supports are available to address the "emotional fallout" experienced by those whose homes were lost.
"It really is a case of a picture being worth a thousand or 10,000 words," said Johnston. "It's hard to fathom the devastation."
The group later stopped at a sports complex downtown for a reception where people were waiting to greet the countess.
Chantal Boutin was holding a Canadian flag that she managed to recover from the wreckage of her destroyed home and asked Sophie to sign it.
"When we saw that our house was burned to the ground, I saw the flag and the flag gave me hope," said Boutin.
First responders, citizens and volunteers of the city were presented with the Governor General's Commendation for Outstanding Service.
Johnston praised first responders that ran toward, instead of away, from the fire.
"That's what our people in uniform do. When we are faced with danger, they go the wrong way. They go and face it head on."
After the ceremony, Sophie greeted Red Cross volunteers, RCMP officers and firefighters.
From there, the group headed to the Fort McMurray 468 First Nation, southeast of the city.
The community was presented with a commendation for helping Fort McMurray evacuees that day and for the courage they showed when the fire spread and they faced their own evacuation.
Residents performed a traditional song and dance for the visitors. Elder Julie Cheecham presented Johnston with a moose hide, a fur-trimmed pair of mittens and Sophie with a beaded pair of moose hide slippers. She said it took about a week to make both of the gifts herself.
Earlier in the day, Johnston presented a commendation to the First Nations community of Fort McKay north of Fort McMurray, which provided food and temporary shelter to evacuees.
Residents had to flee their homes when flames whipped by high winds raced through the city May 3. About 2,400 houses and other buildings — about 10 per cent of the city — were destroyed in the blaze.
It's not the first time royals have visited a fire-ravaged Alberta town. Five years ago, newlyweds Prince William and Kate lifted spirits when they visited Slave Lake, Alta., where a wildfire destroyed one-third of the community.
Friday was the fourth and last day of the couple's visit to Canada. They arrived in Toronto on Tuesday and made a quick visit to Winnipeg before heading to Saskatchewan.
Sophie dedicated a park in Edmonton on Friday before she flew to Fort McMurray, while Edward handed out the Duke of Edinburgh International Award, named after his father, to young people in Calgary.
The royal couple's visit to Canada was to conclude with a gala reception at the National Music Centre in Calgary.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016