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.”
Wildfire cleanup will test Fort McMurray
Cleaning up Fort McMurray’s wildfire will test the city’s ability to handle everything from asbestos to rotting food and leave a lasting legacy of higher costs and dangerous residue.
So says Tom Moore — and he should know. Moore manages the landfill at Slave Lake, where one-third of the town was gutted by a fire five years ago this month.
“It overwhelms you,” Moore recalled Thursday. “I received, in about four months time, about three years of waste into my facility.”
Moore said the landfill took in about 40,000 tonnes of waste after the fire destroyed more than 400 buildings. The influx forced the dump to expand as well as to buy bigger equipment and upgrade its roads.
“There are landfills in Alberta that receive hundreds of thousands of tonnes every year,” said Moore. “But if all of a sudden they’re receiving four times that, in a short period of time, that’s devastating.”
Most of the concrete and metal was recycled, but much of the rest of that waste was problematic.
“All of the houses have been shut off from their power. Now you’ve got refrigerators full of food. You have to handle that safely so nobody gets sick and nobody gets exposed to that.”
More than 4,200 refrigerators and freezers were hauled to the Slave Lake landfill. Moore, who’s also the informal chairman of waste officials who have all experienced disaster recovery, said High River, Alta., sent 7,500 refrigerators full of food to its landfill after the 2013 flood.
Then there’s the ash. Slave Lake’s ash, all of which went to the landfill, was tainted with levels of heavy metals including lead and arsenic that were many times higher than guidelines.
“We made sure all our operators had the right type of respirators,” Moore said. “Every day we changed out the filters in the cabs on the equipment.”
Moore said that ash is still leaching toxins. Contaminants haven’t been found in groundwater off the site, but workers have to drain and test fluids that collect in the bottom of the landfill twice a year instead of once annually — at twice the expense.
The municipality had to spend about $2 million upgrading its landfill after the fire.
“Right now, we’re actually having some financial issues,” Moore said.
“We had to dig this cell, we had to buy equipment and now we’ve got some big debt that we’ve got to pay that we don’t have revenue for. It is a financial burden.”
Any problems experienced by Slave Lake are likely to be much more severe in Fort McMurray, which lost more than 2,400 buildings.
“They’re going to receive probably five times their normal waste going into their facility for a while,” said Moore.
Scott Long of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said Thursday that officials are already considering waste disposal.
“All of these things are being looked at right now by a large team of specialists in conjunction with Regional Emergency Operations Centre,” he said at a press briefing. “We’re doing this as safely and quickly as we can.”
Moore said he’s already been in touch with Fort McMurray municipal officials to offer advice. His group has people with experience from floods to fires to accidental deaths in landfills.
“After our disaster and the one in High River, we said we need some group that can be available to call and help through these disasters. We had nobody when we had ours.”