He became a trusted face during the first week of the wildfire disaster, providing answers and reassurance to thousands forced to flee Fort McMurray. Now, the man who refused to be called a hero is back in the city as residents come home.
“I’ve been back for five or six days now,” Darby Allen said Wednesday. “Just excited today that we’re bringing the people home.”
The Wood Buffalo fire chief took some time off after the immediate danger to the community passed. At the time, an emotional Allen said he needed to spend time with his family. With his now-familiar smile, he added he might “have a couple of beers.”
“It was pretty sweet tasting,” Allen said when Global News spoke to him on Wednesday.
“I enjoyed my time away and managed to revisit with my family and just do family stuff and not look at my Blackberry too much.”
For the last week, Allen’s been back at it, preparing the city for waves of residents returning to Fort McMurray. The first group – about 8,000 – came back Wednesday. Officials said they were expecting between 13,000 and 14,000 that day.
“A little bit lower numbers than we thought,” Allen said. “But we’re hearing of really no issues with the reception centres, people have gone home.
“I’ve talked to some people about what condition their home was in. They’re pretty positive. They’re pretty happy. So, all in all, we’re having a great day.”
The fire chief didn’t seem too surprised fewer people decided to return immediately.
“There are lots of families that have currently embedded their kids in schools somewhere else because our schools aren’t open for the rest of the year. So there’s lots of reasons people will or will not come back. For those who choose to come back, that’s great. If people chose to stay a little bit south for a bit, that’s fine too.”
Firefighters are still battling the 581,000-hectare blaze northeast of the city. There are also crews putting out hotspots within Fort McMurray.
“In these wildfire situations, you will always have those for weeks to come,” Allen explained. “People shouldn’t be too worried about that – it’s fairly normal. We’ll respond to them. We’ll put those out.”
Allen said Alberta crews have had an “incredible” amount of support from firefighters across the country and around the world. There are 2,360 firefighters and support staff helping in the fire fight. The fire chief said local firefighters are still very much involved. In fact, crews hoisted Canadian and Alberta flags atop a bridge over the highway to welcome residents home Wednesday.
“They’ve been here since Day 1,” Allen said. “They’re still proud and they’re still working hard.”