Cliff Jones from Bristol 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.
Cliff, who served in the RAF before joining the prison service in Bristol, had only completed his Greyshirt training the weekend before being mobilized, had joined Team Rubicon to join an environment which recreates service life and camaraderie and help wherever he could around the world.
Cliff said: “The most emotive experience I had during the operation was the morning that I met Sherie and her husband Sheldon. This was an extremely high profile search, sift and property recovery task and prominent in the media, social media and on TV. Sherie’s son Tyler is a 17 year old young man who has learning difficulties that as a family they deal with. He attends a school where he has a group of friends but his best friend prior to the fire was his dog Mollie. Unfortunately they were unable to take the dog, a St Bernard, when the emergency call to evacuate came. She stayed in the family home.
When I first spoke to the homeowners they gave me a list of “Hard Targets” of items that they wanted us to search for. But the main priority was something that had belonged to the dog - as explained to myself and my team, the dog was Tyler’s life.
After an exhaustive search, where we found all of the targets requested, my team found Mollie. At this time, I withdrew my team and then went to the Safe Area to discuss the find with Sherie. I explained in as gentle and caring manner as possible that we had located the dog and asked what they wanted me to do. Understandably they were grief stricken, but also relieved that they now had an answer.
I offered them a number of choices - we could leave Mollie in the house, we could remove her for the family to take away with them, or, as they had told me they would rebuild is that I could bring Mollie up from the basement and bury her for them.
Sherie and Sheldon decided that they would like Mollie buried. I went back to my Team who were all visibly upset. Along with my colleague Keith, I got into the full PPE kit and I went into the property with Keith observing. I carried Mollie out and the two of us dug a grave. While Keith finished off the grave I made a cross from fencing nearby. We also found a discarded flower pot and found some flowers. After Mollie had been buried, the cross and flowers arranged I went and spoke to Sherie and Sheldon. They accompanied me onto their property and where extremely emotional, but so thankful that we had laid Mollie to rest.
A Local resident of Fort McMurray upon hearing of the family’s loss, took it upon himself to go and find them and presented them with an 8 week old St Bernard puppy. Tyler has his new life friend.
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.