Rubble search team expands in Fort McMurray as demand skyrockets

For some Fort McMurray residents returning home to nothing, it's the little things found in the rubble that make starting anew seem possible. After huge demand, Team Rubicon is bringing in more volunteers to help search through the ashes.

Team Rubicon will expand from 25 to 300 volunteers to search for valuables in burned-down homes

Tanya and Terry Brittain searched through the ash of their Beacon Hill home on Wednesday. The city is urging residents not to do this themselves, but to schedule an appointment with Team Rubicon instead. (Andrea Ross/CBC)

For some Fort McMurray residents returning home to nothing, it's the little things found in the rubble that make starting anew seem possible.

But that rubble is filled with toxic chemicals, making it dangerous for residents to search for valuables themselves. Team Rubicon, a specially trained team of volunteer military veterans and first responders, is doing it for them — and they can barely keep up with the demand.

On Wednesday, team members found everything from a motorcycle frame to a young girl's charm bracelet. They even uncovered a shiny engagement ring, still in the box.

"[Residents] are quite surprised to see that," said Team Rubicon incident commander Andrew Straatsma.

"It's always one or two things that just makes the whole experience just so worth it, and that is a starting point for the recovery process for everyone."

After a massive spike in demand, Team Rubicon is drastically boosting its numbers to shorten a wait list of more than 630 people. It's far more than the 100 or so people from whom they expected to receive calls.

Beacon Hill was all but annihilated by the wildfire. What remains is covered in a thick blanket of ash and tackifier, a protective resin. (Andrea Ross/CBC Edmonton )

Residents risk safety, search through ash themselves

Instead of waiting for the team, some residents took matters into their own hands on Wednesday.

In Beacon Hill, one couple, dressed in white protective suits, boots and respirators, dug through the rubble of their own home. They found a necklace and silver tea cups. 

Team Rubicon currently has about 25 people on the ground, sifting through rubble. Over the next week, they expect to increase that number to around 300.

People have firearms in their houses, ammunition that has gone off or hasn't gone off.- Andrew Straatsma, Team Rubicon incident commander

The timeline allows for incoming volunteers to receive essential training and equipment necessary to work in conditions so dangerous that, in some neighbourhoods, even residents whose homes remain standing haven't been allowed to return for good.

Soil samples taken from the worst-hit neighbourhoods of Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways this month showed dangerously high levels of benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and other chemicals. 

Every sample taken contained levels of toxic chemicals in excess of maximum standards set by the Alberta government, with some levels multiple times higher than what would be expected in the environment. 

The province said the results are consistent with chemicals left by items on residential property that can burn, like vehicle tires.

The Fort McMurray neighbourhood of Abasand is seen on Wednesday, June 8. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

And it's not just the ash that poses a threat to Team Rubicon.

"It's all the debris that they're sifting through," Straatsma said. "It was 3,000 degrees, that fire. So you're still getting exposed nails and collapsed parts of chimneys, anything and everything.

"People have firearms in their houses, ammunition that has gone off, or hasn't gone off."

After several warm, dry days, rain fell in Fort McMurray on Thursday. Even rain, or a flareup in a fire nearby, can slow progress, Straatsma said.

Work to span the month of June

The team is expected to hold a town hall with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo this week to determine the next steps. 

They've also released a map, outlining the timeline for completing work in specific areas.

Team Rubicon will sweep the Timberlea neighbourhood first, from June 7-12. The worst-hit areas of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways are projected to be completed from June 13-21. The city centre — much of which remains untouched — will be last, scheduled for near the end of June. 

Straatsma said residents who have requested appointments can expect to receive phone calls 24 to 72 hours before teams arrive in their neighbourhood. 

A schedule of neighbourhoods to be searched by Team Rubicon. (Supplied/Team Rubicon)

Straatsma said the city and municipality are working with them to ensure everyone on the list receives services.

"I know that it's slow, and that's unfortunate," he said. "I think the general logic is, we want to hit from top to bottom in a systematic way, so we ensure every home gets completed and not one home missed.

"We do have a strategy. We're literally now in execution phase, so barring any acts of God, we've got this."