EDMONTON – The man who has been the face of the fire fight in Fort McMurray is taking some time off.
Wood Buffalo fire Chief Darby Allen told reporters Thursday – 10 days after fire first spread into the northern Alberta city – that he is handing control to others tasked with returning people to the community and rebuilding.
“I’m OK at putting out fires and getting people out. But the next phase is not mine,” Allen said, at one point choking back tears while thanking his wife and two grown sons for their support.
“I’ll be honest, I need a break,” Allen said. “I’m going to spend time with my family and we’re going to hug a lot and I’m going to have a couple of beers.
“I’ll rejuvenate myself and I’ll be back in a week or so and I’ll get on with being a fire chief again.”
Allen has been one of the people leading the battle against the wildfire that swept into the city last week and his heartfelt updates on social media have made him a celebrity of sorts.
More than 2,400 homes and buildings were destroyed in the blaze and 530 were damaged, but firefighters under Allen’s charge have been credited with saving up to 90 per cent of the oilsands capital.
Several Fort McMurray firefighters also lost their own homes while working to save others. Officials say Allen’s house is still standing.
A 500-page report will likely be written about the beastly fire someday, said the chief, but until then he believes the most important call made was for the mandatory evacuation of more than 80,000 residents when the fire first entered the city May 3.
Four pets died in the fire, he said, and two people were killed in a car crash during the evacuation. A CBC Radio-Canada videographer was also taken to hospital in critical condition Thursday following a crash near one of the evacuation points, Lac La Biche.
It’s incredible there weren’t more casualties, Allen said.
Crews continued to snuff out flareups Thursday, while inspectors assessed damage.
Municipal Affairs Minister Danielle Larivee said key goals are making sure the fire is completely out, restoring utilities and ensuring the hospital is functional.
That’s especially important in an isolated region like Fort McMurray where the next nearest hospital is hours away, she told a briefing in Edmonton.
Larivee expects it will take five days to assess all structures in the city, but emphasized there is still no fixed date for a return.
The military is pulling out, but Brig.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, commander of Joint Task Force West, said personnel will remain on high alert throughout the summer.
Fire official Chad Morrison said cooler weather has helped crews battle the blaze, which has grown to more than 2,400 square kilometres and is still raging in the forest to the east. Infrared scanners show there are still hot spots outside the city.
“We have had a bit of a break here … but we are going to see more hot, dry weather starting Saturday,” he said.
“The good news with that is we will continue to see some southwest winds that will push the fire away from the community into the remote forested areas.
“That being said, we are long from over in this fight.”