Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen addresses 'coward' accusation

Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen calls recent criticism of his team’s handling of the wildfires in May an unwelcome distraction from the rebuilding that needs to be done.

‘It’s a word that you don’t use in our culture,’ Allen says during in-depth interview

Allen, 59, is planning to retire from his post in February and leave Fort McMurray. (CBC)

Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen calls recent criticism of his team's handling of the wildfires in May an unwelcome distraction from the rebuilding that needs to be done.

Last month, two firefighters working the day the wildfire tore through the northern Alberta city harshly criticized those in charge for not calling for evacuation sooner. 

One suggested it "was cowardly" to evacuate the emergency headquarters in Fort McMurray — relocating to Anzac and Lac La Biche.  CBC agreed not to reveal identitiesof the firefighters to protect their jobs.

The firefighters also said the evacuation was called too late.

During an in-depth interview for a feature on the back story of those first 24 hours, the diplomatic Allen was uncharacteristically blunt in addressing his detractors.

"We don't know if these guys have been on [the firefighter roster] five minutes, five years, or fifteen years," he said. "But I'm going to suggest if they'd been on 15 years, they wouldn't have made that comment, because it's not what we do."

Allen said the decision to evacuate his leadership team from Firehall 5 at midday on May 4, the day after the mass-evacuation that forced more than 90,000 people from their homes, was the only one that made sense in the circumstances.
A worker eats lunch in front of burned trees on the north side of Fort McMurray in June. (CBC)

"If I had 30 firefighters in that room, we would never have left this building. But I didn't," he said. "I've got a 20-year-old girl who's a student. I've got 23-year-old and 24-year-old men and women who are absolutely terrified.

"My job is to keep that team together. And not only keep them together, but to put them in a place where they can all communicate with what's going on so that we can run this thing."

Several senior people did stay behind with the firefighters who were still battling the flames in town. That group included Jody Butz, the chief of operations at that time, and Dale Bendfeld — Allen's deputy. 

Most of the group returned to Fort McMurray the next day.

Allen said there is an unspoken rule among firefighters not to mention the "h-word" [hero], but use of the word "coward," is worse.

"I've been a firefighter since 1983. I've been in fires with men who have ran out the back door because they just couldn't deal with the situation or whatever. And I would've never have gone out and called him a coward," he said.

"It's a word that you don't use in our culture."
The fire-damaged forest in Fort McMurray already shows signs of regrowth. (CBC)

He said the comments "hurt him deeply."

"This is the time when we should be getting together and supporting each other. To take the time out of your day and go and say something like that, I just don't understand that logic."

The Alberta government has expressed regret that the decision to evacuate did not come sooner.

A review is underway, looking at what could be done differently next time. That report is expected at the end of 2016.