Volunteer-led team of veterans who helped Fort McMurray recover from fire headed to Lytton

Click to play video: 'Team Rubicon Canada heading the Lytton, B.C.' Team Rubicon Canada heading the Lytton, B.C.
Lytton Mayor Jan Polderman says while the eventual goal is to rebuild Lytton as a net-zero "green" community, right now the focus is on providing for those who lost everything to the fire. Aaron McArthur reports – Jul 17, 2021

It was 2016 when Team Rubicon Canada first deployed, helping the residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., sift through the wreckage of their fire-ravaged city.

Since then, the team of volunteer military veterans and first responders who focus on disaster relief has deployed more than 50 times, both internationally and at home.

Their next mission will echo their first, as they gear up to help residents of Lytton recover from the deadly fire that virtually wiped the village from the map.

Read more: IN PHOTOS: Scenes of destruction after wildfire destroys village of Lytton, B.C.

Mayor Jan Polderman told Global News that the team’s early work will focus on how to set temporary housing up for residents.

“We’re pleased this team has experience,” he said.

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“They’re ex-military veterans, so they have some structure to them.”

Read more: Lytton, B.C., residents make the emotional return to burned-out town


The Team Rubicon idea began in 2010, with a group of U.S. military veterans who deployed to Haiti to help residents there following a devastating earthquake.

Six years later, when Fort McMurray was razed by fire, a group of Canadian veterans adopted the idea north of the border. The team wears grey t-shirts, from which they’ve derived the nickname “greyshirts.”

Read more: Deadline looming for Fort McMurray residents wanting to sift through rubble

One of the key services they offered devastated locals was “sifting” — literally sifting through the ashes of their homes, looking for items of personal value.

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Click to play video: 'Recovery work underway' Recovery work underway
Recovery work underway – Jun 5, 2016

“There’s a big question mark on what’s there still, what have they got left when they arrived back at the scene of their property — they don’t know what’s going to be there,” Team Rubicon Canada CEO Bryan Riddell said.

“They’re going to have an idea of some of the precious items that they would like to recover if they can. We’re going to help them do that.”

In Fort McMurray, where the team sifted through the wreckage of hundreds of homes, he said some cases were successful in recovering items like wedding rings and old military medals.

“We’re going to dig through that debris. We’re going to engage in the dirty work of sifting through those ashes and that debris to try to find those items for those folks,” he said.

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Before that sifting work can begin, Riddell said the team, which includes members with a variety of emergency and disaster relief skills, will be working with the fire incident management team.

Read more: ‘Hoping we can get the town rebuilt in 2 years’: Lytton mayor shares vision for future

That role will include supporting a hazard assessment of the site plus planning and executing a reentry to the community for residents once the province clears it.

“We say if we can advise and assist, and that’s all that’s needed, that’s great. If they need us to provide more hands-on support in the community, then we’ll provide that as well. But the first part is for us to help make that assessment.”

Riddell said an advanced team deployed to the site last week, and the goal was to have 10 people on the ground by Monday.

Service out of uniform

While assistance from Team Rubicon will no doubt be appreciated, Riddell said the team also offers a valuable opportunity for veterans themselves.

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An 11-year veteran with the Canadian Forces, many in the special forces, Riddell said many of his peers are seeking a way to serve after they leave the military.

Click to play video: 'Lytton fire survivors share heartbreaking stories as school community fundraises' Lytton fire survivors share heartbreaking stories as school community fundraises
Lytton fire survivors share heartbreaking stories as school community fundraises – Jul 17, 2021

“There are three things we tend to lose when we leave: a sense of purpose, self-worth or an identity and that familiar community,” he said.

“One of the things we learned from Fort McMurray is that we’re all out there and to be able to come together again, to be able to continue to serve and to serve Canadians and to serve our neighbours … it’s very meaningful to us.”

While many of the members are military veterans, Riddell said they’ve also attracted first responders, other emergency management personnel and regular civilians.

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The organization is a registered charity, and while it does have a small staff, the majority of its work is accomplished by volunteers and for free.

Since Fort McMurray, the team has taken on a variety of missions, from immediate disaster relief to helping with COVID-19 vaccination efforts in Canada.

You can find out more about the team or how to volunteer at its website.

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