A man so many have called a hero opened up about the toll the Fort McMurray wildfire has taken on the community – as well as him personally.
Fire Chief Darby Allen has become a figure of stability and a beacon of hope in the last week, leading hundreds of firefighters in their battle against “the beast.”
“It’s impossible for me to thank everybody, so I just want to thank each and every person who was here and helped us fight this ring of fire,” Allen said.
“It was traumatic. It was terrible…We fought hard and we saved much of it. We should be proud of ourselves.”
Allen spoke to reporters on Thursday, shortly after his role in the disaster response changed.
“As of noon today, the ministerial order has been changed,” he explained.
Now that the focus is on re-entry and rebuilding, he will no longer serve as director of emergency management.
“I’m OK at putting out fires and getting people out but the next phase is not mine,” Allen said, adding he plans to head south and spend some much-needed time with his family.
“I want to tell my sons that I love them,” he said, his voice breaking. “I want to tell a lady called Maria who’s been married to me for 36 years that I love her very much and I’ll see her soon.”
WATCH: Darby Allen reflects on Fort McMurray firefighting effort: I’m a happy man
The fire chief said he’s amazed at what those fighting alongside him were able to accomplish, given the aggressive nature of the fire. Crews managed to evacuate an entire city – close to 90,000 people – including hundreds of patients and staff in a hospital within a few hours.
“I think that’s something that’s incredible,” Allen said. “We should be thankful and we should be astounded.”
Still, he refuses to take any praise.
“This fire is not about Darby Allen. I was in a place where I told some people what we should do… and all those hundreds of people did that,” the chief said. “I praise them. I’m humbled by them. I’m proud to be part of that team.”
WATCH: Darby Allen issues message to Fort McMurray residents wondering why they can’t return home
He also spoke directly to residents and assured them crews were working “24/7” on a re-entry plan.
“I know that everyone is anxious to return home,” Allen said. “We’re anxious for you to return home.”
He explained officials still had to complete property damage assessments, establish provisions, food and supplies, as well as establish gas, water and security. In the meantime, he encouraged evacuees to register with the Red Cross, contact their insurance company, and apply for provincial and Red Cross emergency funding.
Chief Darby Allen will be coming back to Fort McMurray soon. But for now, he’ll take a few days off to see his boys and his wife.
“We’re going to hug a lot,” he said with a smile, “and I’m going to have a couple of beers.”