Darby Allen: A Portrait of Grace and Empathy
In May of 2016, Darby Allen was the face of Fort McMurray. When he was emotional the world cried with him, and when he finally smiled we all felt as if everything was going to be fine. Kevin Thornton sat down and chatted with him shortly after he’d retired from his job as Fire Chief of Fort McMurray.
In the aftermath of last year’s events, everyone wanted a piece of Darby Allen. The Daily Mirror’s headline claimed him. “Hero firefighter who evacuated entire city from Canadian wildfires revealed as British.” The Birmingham Mail went further, writing about him as a local they could be proud of. “Hero Canadian firefighter who helped save 90,000 is a Brummie,” they proudly announced. Meanwhile in Portsmouth, where Darby had first learned his trade; well no surprises there; he was one of them. “Former Portsmouth firefighter hailed a hero after Canadian wildfire mass evacuation.” Calgary too acknowledged their pride in Darby as a former member of their fire department, though they were too Canadian to praise him too much. No hero worship, just an acknowledgement that he was good at his job.
If the English newspapers really knew anything about Darby, it would have been that the word hero sets his teeth on edge. In May last year, after days of being asked about the ‘H’ word, as he refers to it, he admitted only that, “in an unprecedented situation, our first responders did their job, and we will always be thankful for their bravery on the ground.”
All through the crisis he was calm, resolute and honest. Brutally honest at times. “It’s been the worst day of my career. It’s a nasty, ugly fire and it hasn’t shown any forgiveness,” was one of his more candid moments. Here’s another, showing the despair he was feeling. “I really believed at the end of Tuesday, if we wake up at first light and we’ve got 50 per cent of our homes left, and we’ve only killed a few thousand people, we’d have done well. That’s how bad I felt.”
Darby Allen is tall, lean and craggy-looking. He looks like a character actor in a classic movie from forty years ago. The Wild Bunch, maybe. Everyone else is watching William Holden and Robert Ryan but you know better and you’re focused in the most interesting man on the screen, Warren Oates.
Darby Allen is interesting as well and there are secrets that have not been told up to now.
Like his name, Darby. It’s not really his name.
Marcus Adrian Allen was born in Birmingham in the English Midlands. An only child, it was a good time to be growing up in England. Rationing was finally over after the war, the economy was booming in the industrial heart of the country and Birmingham had near zero unemployment. “We lived in a little village called Yoxall and my Dad had a job in the town of Lichfield.”
His father had polio as a child. It affected his legs so that even though he tried to volunteer during the war, they couldn’t take him. “That was one of my Dad’s biggest regrets, not being able to serve.”
Further on up the Lichfeld Road, Darby went to John Taylor High School, from which he graduated with a school leaving certificate in 1973. “I didn’t really enjoy school very much, apart from meeting people and having fun. I liked Mathematics and Geography, English and Art.” But it was a time when your fate as a student was decided on one exam when you were 11. “If you did well, you were aimed towards a University life. For the rest, well you just had to make the best of it.”
He enjoyed music as well, and as Soul morphed into Disco in the seventies, Darby loved to hit the dancefloor. “I didn’t like punk music. I liked the Motown sound, Funk, Disco. I like dancing, I still do in fact.”
Darby was offered a job at the same company his Dad worked at, Enots Engineering, and he was keen on studying to become a an electrical technician.
It was a good idea, a good career. Enots were well-respected. They still exist today, kind of. They got into a bit of financial trouble, were bought out and are now part of a conglomerate, though they are still in Lichfield. Darby, had he stayed, would have been set for village life, with the white picket fence and the pub on the corner.
Instead, the company offered to pay him out of his apprenticeship. With 40 pounds in his pocket and an air of expectation, he went off and joined the navy. “I loved every minute of it. I got to travel and see the world. I learned a trade, I was a weapons electrical mechanic, working on missiles systems and sonar systems.”
He met Maria when they were both serving in the Royal Navy in 1979. “She ended up working in the same place I did. She didn’t really want to know me. I chased her for probably three or four months and tricked her into a date, a foursome with a friend of hers. The first date didn’t go that great, but the next one went well. We were married within 18 months, in 1980, and we’re still together today. We were married in Liverpool which is where Maria and her family are from, and it still remains in my memory as one of the greatest days of my life.”
Back to Portsmouth then, where Darby, looking to be more settled and with a view to starting a family, quit the Navy to work for a yoghurt carton printing factory called Sweet Heart Plastics. Within a year he’d become the charge hand, running the shift. He was doing well, making money. One son born, another on the way.
He’d had a chance to go back in to the Navy for the Falklands War. His last sea posting was the HMS Bulwark, an aircraft carrier, and there was talk of recommissioning it. Darby and many of his generation were already disillusioned with the Thatcher Government so he very politely turned them down and went back to his yoghurt cartons.
However, something was missing from his life. At first he thought it was the camaraderie of the service, which was a small part of it. It took him a while to realize that what he needed was a sense of purpose. There are some people who are born to serve, and Darby, without quite realizing it, was one of them. A life making dairy containers wasn’t enough.
One day, at the end of a shift, he was sitting having a few beers with some mates in a pub across the road from a Fire Station. “It’s a Friday night, busy, elbow-to-elbow. I hear these pagers go off and next minute these two guys go running out the pub. So I follow, and they head to the station and next thing the fire engine is out the doors, lights and sirens on, and I said, ‘Who the hell were those guys?’
‘Volunteer firefighters,’ said my Mate, and I thought, ‘Yep, I’d like to try me some of that.”
It wasn’t that easy. I talked to the station officer and while he was happy to talk to me, in those days if you were a volunteer you had to live within a mile of the station. That was quite a restriction. You needed people who interested in volunteering, and then they had to live round the corner. So when I go into the fire station that day, I’m about 24 years old fairly fit and healthy, I get taken in to see the boss, this huge man sitting behind a desk reading a newspaper. I say to him, ‘Good Morning’. He doesn’t even put the newspaper down. He says ‘What do you want?’ So I tell him I want to be a volunteer fireman and he still doesn’t put the paper down. ‘Where do you live?’ He says. Now I realized later that he gets a lot of people through the door wanting to be volunteers. Anyway I tell him I’m on Gordon Road. Still no reaction. Then I tell him I’m at Number 54 and he jumps out of the chair as he realizes I live close enough to join. He congratulated me and signed me up right there and then. There was no test, all I needed was a pulse and the right house address.”
After six months as a volunteer Darby had seen the light. “I went home and said to my wife this is what I would really like to do as a career. She was supportive, as she has always been. Unfortunately, becoming an entry level fireman meant I would halve the salary I was earning at Sweet Heart, but it didn’t seem to worry her. ‘We’ll just make do,’ she said. And we did.”
He signed on full time in 1984, worked hard, was promoted to leading fireman in charge of the pumper truck, and was loving his life, his work and his family.
And one day his wife said to him, ‘I think we should move.’
“I thought she meant down the street, not to Canada. Anyway we applied. It took about two years and $12,000, but we were determined.”
He’d met Pete Smith, a former local newspaperman in Portsmouth, who was working for the Calgary Sun. They hit it off and Pete offered him a room when he landed, and even picked him up at the airport. Now retired to Quadra Island, this is how Pete remembers it. “I’d spent 21 years as a reporter on the Portsmouth News newspaper, mostly covering the emergency services which meant I had a close working arrangement with the Portsmouth Fire Brigade. I covered many hundreds of fires, being called out by fire control whenever big ones happened. After my wife and I immigrated to Calgary and were settled, we heard a Portsmouth firefighter needed somewhere to live as he was immigrating too. If he was a “Pompey” fireman that was good enough for me.”
They put him up for a month, long enough for him to find a place for his family. More from Pete. “Darby was a real live wire. He went running and keeping fit every day, he worked at several jobs until he got onto the Calgary Fire Department. I then worked on the Calgary Sun for 16 years covering the emergency services and I met Darby on a bunch of Calgary fires. We kept in touch after he brought his family over to join him. I was proud to know him when he played such an important role in the Fort McMurray fire. It didn’t surprise me that he took all that in his stride.”
Darby remembers it a bit differently, frustrated by the timing. “I arrived in September 1990 to test for the Calgary fire department, only to find the selections had already been made, and I’d have to wait a year to try again. So when my family arrived a month later, I had a job as a house painter. Then I tried selling insurance, and I hated that. I still wanted to try being a firefighter in Canada but it was tough going for a while.”
He went back the next year. There were 16 positions available, and 6200 applicants.
“I was convinced I had no chance. I was never going to get this job. But I did ok I guess. Then when we went on to the physical test there is a part of it where you have to pick up lengths of hose, jump on the back of the pumper and stick them on top of the truck. The guy in front of me took a misstep and shattered his knee on the tailboard. They had to call for a stretcher, clean up his blood, and wipe down the pumper truck. I thought they’d stop the testing but the assessor looked over, said ‘Next’, and I was away.”
He passed, but it was a bit tense to say the least. They hadn’t moved across the Atlantic for Darby to paint houses, and a lesser man would have thought the fates were conspiring against him, but Darby had been through this before. “When I was hired at Hampshire in ’84, the jump from volunteer to full-time was like the difference between night and day. There was two days of testing and 86 people were whittled down to 9 and then 1. Fortunately I was the 1.”
Darby enjoyed being in Calgary. He started out as a Firefighter, then spent a lot of time as a training officer before making it to Assistant Deputy Chief of Operations. He was ambitious though, and when the job became available in Fort McMurray, he jumped at the chance.
He was in town four years before they offered him the Fire Chief’s job and he was blooded quickly. The floods of 2013 tested the Emergency Management system, the REOC, and showed its successes and failures. In the wake of the Calgary disaster later that year the near flood in Fort McMurray is almost forgotten. “We were about two inches away from canoeing down Franklin. It was very close.”
That was followed by the Siltstone Place Apartment complex fire the next year, the Abasand four house fire of 2015, and then the Beast. It’s hard to take any positives from tragedies, but it is entirely possible that Darby was the best-qualified person for the job of managing the YMM evacuation in Canada at the time. He had an Emergency Management system that had been trialled since 2013, the confidence of the staff, and a couple of big fires to test that everything worked the way it was supposed to. Fort McMurray, in its three year run of bad luck, was actually quite lucky.
In the months and years to come there will be analyses done of the fire and how everyone reacted to it. Mistakes will be noted, luck duly attributed and acts of gods no doubt will be acclaimed. What does Darby think? “I am not a religious man, but it was a little bit of a miracle,” he said at the time, and who could disagree with that?
* * * * *
So how did he end up changing his name? It was done for him. “It’s a silly tradition in the Royal Navy. Certain last names are attached to certain nicknames. If, for example your name was White, it doesn’t matter what you were christened, you’d be called Chalkie. The same goes for ‘Dinger’ Bell, ‘Dicky’ Bird, ‘Dusty’ Miller . . . and Darby Allen, among many others.
“I was christened Marcus Adrian Allen, even though my Dad wanted to call me Stuart. At school they called me Cudgie, after a bear on the TV. And my Mother called me Bill anyway. I never knew why. By the time I was out the Navy my wife knew me as Darby, so that was that. I’ve been Darby ever since.
Birmingham, Portsmouth, Calgary and all others may claim him as much as they wish. In Fort McMurray, he’s not just Darby Allen, he’s our Darby Allen.
Quotes from the time of the fire
“This Fire is a sleeping beast. It will wake up, It will come back.”
“This is a nasty, dirty fire. We’re still in a very dangerous situation in town.”
“We’re still here, we’re still battling. The beast is still up, it’s surrounding the city and we’re here doing our very best for you.”
“We successfully evacuated 88,000 people. We are here, we are strong and we will keep doing our job.”
“I do truly believe we couldn’t have done any more. This was a horrible fire. Whatever we tried to do, it went a different way and it found some more fuel. We did our very best. The good news is you may not see it but there are many, many areas that are untouched. Fort McMurray is still alive and we’re ready for the future.”
There are certainly areas within the city that have not been burned, but this fire will look for them and it will find them and it will want to take them.”
“In hindsight, would I do anything different? Yeah. When I came back from lunch on that Sunday, I would have said, ‘Let’s evacuate McMurray.’”