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.
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.
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
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.