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Reflection – Matt O’Rourke on serving those in need following the Fort McMurray wildfire

Matt O’Rourke from Tonbridge, Kent, was one of a team of 10 volunteers, predominantly military veterans, from disaster relief charity Team Rubicon UK deployed to Fort McMurray (Alberta Canada) following the devastating wildfires that caused the emergency evacuation of 88,000 people and destroyed 2,400 homes and buildings.

Devastation: The Fort McMurray Wildfires took a huge toll on local infrastructure and housing

The group joined partners from Team Rubicon USA, Canada and Australia assisting the Regional Emergency Operations Centre and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in allowing residents to access their properties after wildfires consumed more than 566,000 hectares, or over 1.4 million acres. Team Rubicon members led teams of local resources in sifting through potentially hazardous debris and ash in destroyed homes to enable destroyed remains to be photographed for insurance, occasionally finding legal documents or high value items and, almost every time, the recovery of sentimentally priceless items.

Panning for gold: A TR Volunteer attempts to find a homeowner’s sentimentally valuable items amidst the remains

Team Rubicon volunteers led teams of local volunteers and contractors to properties where they met the owners and set up operating zones; they used personal protective equipment, decontamination systems and property handover areas in order to ensure the risks to health were managed.

Work was coordinated with the Alberta Government municipality so that residents could use a dedicated phone number to book appointments, which were passed to Team Rubicon Operations planning teams who then created work sheets for the search teams to use. Team Rubicon members then met residents to see what they could do to help, assess what might be recoverable, and manage expectations.

This was a challenging experience for all involved; not only dealing with risk, hard work, extreme weather conditions and hugely emotional situations, but also the sudden level of responsibility and expectation placed on them as a team. But the positive impact for the families whose lives had been so devastated was clear.

“I really only wanted to find one thing that could never be replaced, a small urn with my mother’s ashes. As directed by Matt we drew a sketch of the most likely position that the urn would be. He directed his team to that location and within a minute or two the urn was located. Well, I immediately began to cry and as I looked at Matt he was walking my way with his arms outstretched and tears in his eyes. I will never forget him and will hold a special place in my heart for him.”  Philomena Evans Fort McMurray

A TR volunteer coordinating a locally employed sifting team. Either that or the Beastie Boys are still really big in Canada

Matt was medically discharged from the UK military in 2013 with a spinal injury. He has re-trained as a chimney sweep and is currently studying a BSc in Countryside Management, but joined Team Rubicon UK seeing it as a chance to serve again. He reflected on his first Operation with Team Rubicon UK saying “The resilience of the Fort McMurray community has been overwhelming but has helped me to see that life goes on and to keep your head up no matter.  The team for me have been awesome from all the nations here and supported me through the hard and easy times. I’ve found the brotherhood that I lost when I left the Army.”

This is one of the great strengths of Team Rubicon; placing veterans in a supported position that is a challenge but also provides them a sense of purpose that is real and one that makes a real difference to others.

The recovery effort was delivered at a rate of nearly 100 properties a day, by a huge work force, matched by dedicated command, planning, safety and logistical teams. After completing more than 900 sifting operations and fielding more than 2400 phone requests, Team Rubicon handed over the remaining sifting efforts to the Regional Emergency Operations Centre and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo on June 24th.

4 Responses to “Reflection – Matt O’Rourke on serving those in need following the Fort McMurray wildfire”

  1. Lt. Gordon Larin

    as a Search & Rescue call-out from Alberta , THANK YOU for helping my extended family in the north. We walked in the shadows of true heroes who bravely & barely escaped this firestorm and the 1st responders who stayed to face the hell that it was. Rubicon was the closure to a historic disaster relief effort. Salute to all UK, USA, Australia Team Rubicon members who helped make Fort McMurray residents find their hearts in the ashes of Tackfire~ Had an opportunity to team up with Matt on one of the Search missions ~ ** Alberta Strong/ Canadian spirit. -much respect to all.
    Lt. Gord Larin (ret. OFS,ca) ~TR Canada 100123/CSAR ~Echo2

  2. Jodi Steeves

    I also had a great experience with Team Rubicon and will be forever grateful for my Team Leader Ryan Murphy and his team. Thank you!

  3. Matthew O'Rourke

    This deployment changed my life from start to finish for the better. i deployed and worked with both Gordon and Ryan and have continued (and will do) to stay in touch with both as they are are amazing men who make the difference. the honour and pleasure was all mine and, i hope, given the role we have, I NEVER SEE YOU AGAIN xx

  4. Philomena Evans

    Matt, I think of you often and of the wonderful job that you and your team did for me. I hope that you are keeping well and I wish you nothing but health and happiness in the future. I will never forget you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.


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