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Darby Allen shares lessons from Fort McMurray wildfire

There are lessons people in Grande Prairie can learn from the Fort McMurray wildfire. The face of the wildfire, Darby Allen, spoke at the Growing the North conference last week, telling the crowd that if certain things didn’t happen, the end result could have been very different.

The spring 2016 wildfire forced the evacuation of more than 88,000 people, the largest wildfire evacuation in Canada’s history. Allen was fire chief of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo at the time, and he says part of their success came from empowering the volunteers and first responders who stayed behind.

“To me, leadership is about gaining trust of people, and if they trust you they’ll do amazing things… treat everyone with respect, be polite, and do the little things well.”

No lives were lost as a direct result of the wildfire, although two teens were killed in a crash on Highway 881 as they were fleeing the blaze. Allen attributes that to the safety culture that surrounds industry in the Fort McMurray area, some timely decisions, the twinning of the highways in and out of the city, and the actions of the community.

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“The general population, when something of that magnitude happens, the way they come together and care for each other will stay with me forever.”

Allen notes that Grande Prairie is surrounded by the same kind of forest as the Wood Buffalo region, meaning there could be a similar threat of wildfire to the community. He recommends residents make sure they have a plan in place.

“Make sure that you’ve got at least a container with important things, as in tax papers, passports, really important family mementos, so that if you ever do get that 30 minute [evacuation notice], you can go grab something and leave.”

Local fire departments have said there’s less of a risk of a similar fire sparking in the region due to surrounding agricultural land and FireSmart work. Although Fort McMurray was fortunate not to lose cell service, Allen also suggests families make a plan for how they will contact each other in an emergency.

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