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Fort McMurray fire chief has become human face of efforts to fight blaze

Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen.

Over the past week, Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen has become a recognizable face and voice across the nation, his tired eyes and lilting accent recognizable to everyone following the wildfire devastating his community. In the midst of an unprecedented crisis, the city's fire chief has been variously hailed by the public as "an exceptional leader," a "remarkable human," "a portrait in grace and empathy." And, more simply: "The Man."

"There's been lots of words used about me and I just want everyone to know that I'm just a guy doing his job to the best of his ability," Chief Allen said, in a short video released on Twitter on Saturday afternoon. "The real heroes out there are the firefighters, emergency services personnel that are currently on the ground. They're the people that should be getting all the kudos."

The Fort McMurray fire: Here's how you can help, and receive help

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Whether he likes the attention or not, Chief Allen has become the human face of efforts to fight the blaze and has connected deeply with many affected by the unfolding disaster.

"I can't help but love this man," tweeted former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith on Saturday. When Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons asked on Twitter, "Is it inappropriate that I'm developing a wee crush on Darby Allen?" responses ranged from "Get in line, Paula" to "How could you not!"

Others have suggested there should be Chief Allen bobbleheads sold to raise money, that he should be the Calgary Stampede's Parade Marshal, that a street should be named after him, and that he should get a medal, the Alberta Order of Excellence and/or the Order of Canada. A Twitter poll asking, "Who do you love more? Fire chief Darby Allen or actor Leonardo DiCaprio" saw Chief Allen leading by 100 per cent.

Born in Birmingham, England, Chief Allen began his firefighting career with the Hampshire Fire Brigade in Portsmouth in 1984. He joined the Calgary Fire Department as a firefighter in January, 1992, later training firefighters, then rising to assistant deputy chief. He began working in Fort McMurray in 2011, and became chief in January, 2013.

On LinkedIn, Chief Allen describes his job as a firefighter with the Calgary Fire Department as simply: "Leaping small buildings etc." The description of his job as deputy chief operations for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo reads, "Seemed like everything."

Fort McMurray Fire Department Captain Nick Waddington describes Chief Allen as a thoughtful and caring person, and a good fire chief who cares about his crew.

"Darby is very professional, very collected, pretty calm even under strenuous circumstances," said Capt. Waddington, who is also president of the Fort McMurray Fire Fighters Association. "Sometimes during the labour process you make difficult decisions, and you don't agree. But he always puts the needs of his membership first."

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After less than six months as fire chief in Fort McMurray, Chief Allen was leading efforts to deal with a serious flood that caused a local state of emergency, sweeping away roads, stranding workers in northern camps and requiring the evacuation of hundreds of people from the community. But the flood was nothing compared to the challenge he faced last week.

In press conferences and short videos released on Twitter throughout the crisis, the father of two has shown obvious emotion and fatigue, but also an unwavering resolve to fight the fire. Speaking to reporters on Friday, he appeared to be fighting back tears.

"We are here, and we are strong and we will keep doing our job," he said.

Speaking to a reporter at a 9/11 memorial in September, 2013, Chief Allen struggled to explain why a firefighter would risk his or her own life to help a stranger.

"I've thought about it often, and I think you're actually born with it," he was quoted as saying. "I think you're born with that desire to want to help people, because that's what it's about."

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