Swarming with people in white Hazmat suits, picks clang against metal and hammers swing into concrete as Sandeep Ayai, 41, watched a team dig through the remains of his Prospect Drive home.
One man loaded debris into a meshed plastic tray and shakes, as if he was panning for gold. But on Sunday, Ayai was hoping to find something more valuable: hard drives and memory cards, filled with thousands of family photos.
“I miss those the most. If someone was to send me back for just five more minutes, I would grab only those things,” he said.
Rather than sift through the remains of his home himself -- something government and health officials are pleading with residents not to do -- Ayai asked for help from a team of volunteers with decades of military and law enforcement experience.
Team Rubicon, an American non-profit group created by two U.S. Marines in 2010, employs veterans who can safely navigate disaster areas and look for things of value.
The group has been in high demand since the city reopened on June 1. Even with 45 members working in Fort McMurray, some residents have complained they have been unable to book an appointment.
To hasten the search and booking process, more volunteers are expected to arrive this week from the United Kingdom and Australia. Locals with appropriate experience are also being trained.
“This is just the volunteer organization I’ve been looking for,” said Andrew Straatsma, 29, one of the few Canadian members in Fort McMurray. Straatsma deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 as a captain with an Ontario infantry reserve regiment.
“There’s nothing like the camaraderie here. I missed that,” said Eric Moffet, 31, a former U.S. Navy gunner's mate. “My chief said it was the one thing I would miss when I left and he was completely right.”
Before starting, the homeowner will help sketch a rough floor plan of the home and mark possible locations of cherished items. On Prospect Drive, the flames razed the homes, meaning attics, roofs, and main floors plunged into the basement. Volunteers think vertically.
Up to five members will go into a site while a team leader supervises. An operation will usually last no more than four hours. Each team aims for a minimum of two operations per day.
“It’s not always about what you find. For homeowners, sometimes the feeling someone cares enough to be helping them helps with the closure,” said Moffet. “Even if we find nothing, there’s a feeling of ‘At least we have closure. There’s no more speculation.’”
If working in the tangle of concrete, metal and ash demonstrates how hot the flames burned, the fact anything is found shows its randomness.
At Moffet's first site, someone found a plastic bag with a Girl Guides sash with badges, unscathed. Another crew found a tea set. Only two photo albums have been found. Firearms are common requests, but no one has found anything beyond the barrel and bolt mechanism.
The best commercial firearm safes cannot withstand more than 45 minutes of 650 C; Moffet points out many of the destroyed cars in the area do not even have engine blocks. The wooden and synthetic stocks did not stand a chance.
Then there are the unusual requests. At one site, volunteers searched for a man’s fossil collection, “looking for rocks among rocks,” as Moffet puts it. Another asked if someone could fill a mason jar with the ashes of his home. They happily obliged.
But most items found are not usable. They become mementos.
Towards the end of Ayai's session, Bryce Austin-Bodner, a Fort McMurray man and former Edmonton peace officer working with the group, pulled the twisted, charred skeleton of a desktop computer from the ashes. Some toys, a metal plate and three cups were also found. No memory cards or hard drives were found.
“I’ve been prepared for this since I heard my home was gone on May 4. At the same time, this is something no one wants to see,” says Ayai. “But now I have seen it and I can rebuild.”
Monday, June 13, 2016/Fort McMurray Today