Edmonton Sun: BY KEITH GEREIN
In the grips of final stage cancer, all Quentin Thomas wanted to do was to spend his last few days at home in peace.
Fort McMurray’s wildfire wouldn’t give him that peace, forcing the bed-ridden 48-year-old to be evacuated with the rest of the city.
“They had to take him out in a bed sheet,” said his brother Sheridan Thomas. “He died three days later in the Lac La Biche hospital.”
That same day he died, his family received confirmation that Thomas’s home in Stone Creek had been destroyed.
On Wednesday, Thomas’s son and brother returned to the home on Prospect Drive for the first time to look for any mementos of their relative. But rather than fumble around in the hazardous debris themselves, the Thomases had help from a group of specially trained volunteers.
Team Rubicon is a U.S.-based non-profit group of mainly former first responders and military veterans who know how to safely navigate disaster areas and recover things of value.
Around 25 members of the team are now in Fort McMurray to help search through the charred wreckage. For many homeowners who have seemingly lost everything, the team has been successful at plucking cherished items from the ash.
“We have had wonderful interactions with the homeowners. Fort McMurray, the residents really have their hearts out there,” said Aaron Marshall, planning section chief for Team Rubicon. “It’s fantastic to give them something. Any heirloom, and important piece of property we can find for them, it’s great.”
For the Thomases, the big prize was the remains of a Victory motorcycle Quentin bought last year after learning of his cancer prognosis. Four members of the Team Rubicon lifted the heavy beast out of what used to be the garage and placed it in the back of a pickup truck for the Thomases.
Throughout the process, Quentin’s son Kristen was giving the play by play to his mother on the phone from Newfoundland.
What used to be a blue and white motorcycle with a red stripe down the centre is now black and grey, though Kristen said he plans to clean it up and make a display out of it to honour his father.
“I got the greatest summer project on my hands,” Kristen said.
“It’s good he’s got that because he knows how much it meant to his father,” added Sheridan. “Simple things, right?”
Sheridan also received a prize from the rubble. Team Rubicon members managed to pry open a metal tool cabinet and recover an old family nail remover. It once belonged to an uncle of Sheridan’s before Quentin came into possession.
“It looks good, too,” Sheridan said as Team Rubicon members washed ash off the tool.
The volunteer team also managed to pluck out a couple of mugs and misshapen plates form the kitchen, the patterns still visible on the surface.
Team Rubicon has been in high demand this week as residents have begun returning to the most damaged area of Fort McMurray. Some have complained they have been unable to reach the group to make an appointment for searching.
Marshall said they are working on the issue and plan to call residents back between 24 and 72 hours before their appointment time.
The plan is to search specific neighbourhoods one at a time, rather than spread volunteers all over the city.
Marshall said the team also hopes to double its numbers to 50 in the coming days, in part by bringing in more staff from the United States, but also by training some locals on how to safely conduct searches.
“We are looking to get back to residents as soon as possible,” he said.