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Retiring Fort McMurray fire chief still plagued by guilt

Darby Allen, the Fort McMurray fire chief credited with slaying one of Alberta's largest wildfires, is bidding farewell to his home and position.

'Nobody feels guiltier than me and those firefighters that we couldn't have saved every property'

Darby Allen, the Fort McMurray fire chief credited with slaying one of Alberta's largest wildfires, is bidding farewell to his home and position. He speaks about his next plans and the guilt that still haunts him. 1:24

Darby Allen, the Fort McMurray fire chief credited with slaying one of Alberta's largest wildfires, is bidding farewell to his home and position.

Allen retired Thursday after four years as fire chief with a low-key staff appreciation event. Originally from Birmingham, England, he started with the Fort McMurray department in 2009.  

He never thought he would end his career inundated with so many requests for interviews.

"I think it's safe to say it's way bigger news than it had have been if the wildfire hadn't come along," Allen said Friday.

Even as Allen and his wife Maria packed up their downtown Fort McMurray apartment, the fire chief's former assistant said her boss is still getting many media requests.

Allen led the Wood Buffalo Regional Emergency Services response on May 3, 2016 when a wildfire raced through parts of Fort McMurray. The flames encircling Canada's oilsands capital prompted one of Canada's largest evacuations.

'Nobody feels guiltier than me'

National and international media watched as an estimated 90,000 people fled the city. More than 2,400 homes were destroyed. Residents started returning home a month later.

While the fire chief is held up as hero outside Fort McMurray, Allen said his heart goes out local residents who feel he and his department failed them. He hears criticism that his department called the evacuation of Fort McMurray too late or didn't do enough to save neighbourhoods.

"Nobody feels guiltier than me and those firefighters that we couldn't have saved every property," Allen said. "With that type of fire in those early days we didn't have the resources to do everything."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with then-Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen as Alberta Premier Rachel Notley looks on in Edmonton, before a flight to Fort McMurray. Trudeau made a visit in May to see first-hand the devastation caused by the wildfire that forced the evacuation of the city. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Allen can't stop thinking about how much the fire has taken a mental toll on his firefighters.

He's particularly focused on the 13 staff who have taken leaves of absence. Privacy legislation prevents him from knowing why they're off work but he knows it's not because of physical illness.

"That concerns me. We don't usually have that many people off," Allen said. "So I think it's just starting to hit a few people."
Former Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen is racked with guilt about how many homes he and his staff were not able to save. (CBC/Terry Reith)

Allen said a number of reviews are looking into what the fire department, the municipality and the province could have done better. He said he's not anxiously awaiting their results.

"I won't be sitting there with bated breath to read that report," Allen said.

It will be up to his successor, Jody Butz, to analyze the findings and implement the recommendations that will be issued in the next couple of months.

Book deal?

Allen said he will be enjoying his time off and looking forward to taking a long vacation, buying a boat and doing some fishing.

He's also looking forward to spending time with his son in Calgary and then moving to Vancouver with his wife.

"She's going to get me to do some decorating in our new apartment," Allen said.

He's contemplating doing some public speaking and also talking to Queen's University about crisis leadership. Publishers have also approached him about writing a book, but he hasn't committed to taking on that challenge. 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.