Former Fort McMurray fire chief shares stories of human courage, kindness in battling "the beast"

The images from smartphones and dashcams are seared into the minds of most Canadians. The May 2016 fire that started out as a plume of smoke on the horizon moved into Fort McMurray, Alta., with such speed, fury, and persistence it became  became known simply as”the beast.”

The person who was in charge of fighting that beast was Darby Allen, fire chief of the Municipal District of Wood Buffalo, Alta., where the city of Fort McMurray is located. Allen is now speaking about those days in May that changed so many lives forever. RealAgriculture caught up with Allen after he made his presentation to the attendees at CropConnect at Winnipeg, Man.

It is quite striking how many people want to talk to Allen. After his talk several came up to him to share their own experiences or the experiences of their friends and loved ones. Allen does his best to accommodate those who wish to connect with him. “It’s still emotional for people,” he says. “My wife says I make more people cry than any man in history.”

When the fire started just outside of town, there was no real alarm. Allen says the forecast was for the wind to take the fire past the town, so they were monitoring the fire but were not too worried. Then the wind changed and one of the most beautiful features of Fort McMurray — the green zones— became the most threatening.

Allen deflects questions about what he was going through as he dealt with the crisis, and instead, focusses on the people he was responsible for. “Obviously it was a little stressful, but I was more worried about all the people than anything else. You’re so busy trying to get (the people out), you don’t have time to worry about anything else.”

There were also times when Allen had to refocus and make sure he maintained the confidence of those around him. “There’s some moments there where you go and find a quiet room and you think ‘Oh my God, you know, what the hell are we going to do?’ But you hide that, you come out and you stay positive.”

The main story is the fire, of course. But the more remarkable story may be how the people who were affected by the fire responded. They say that when you heat the ore the gold comes out, or in the words of Allen, “I learnt, most of all, that people will rise up. People do amazing things when the need is there.”

Watch the entire interview with former Wood Buffalo (Fort McMurray) fire chief, Darby Allen, and RealAgriculture’s Dale Leftwich, below.

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