A Conflagration That Consumes: What One Family Lost to Fire
From John Vaillant's Baillie GIfford Prize Shortlisted Fire Weather
Paul and Michele Ayearst had two children, a college-age son in a man camp north of the city, and a grown daughter who called from downtown at around 2:30 with the news that an evacuation order had been issued for Beacon Hill. Even though the alert had been issued a half hour earlier, it had taken a while for it to trickle through participating radio stations, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and word of mouth. While Paul could clearly see that the smoke plume was growing larger and darker behind Good Shepherd Elementary, he could not, from his vantage, see exactly how close the fire was. Nonetheless, he took the order seriously and started gathering suitcases. It was then that their phones began ringing steadily: the fire had already made the news, and friends and family were calling them from other cities, checking to see if they were okay. Michele was growing visibly upset and Paul was trying to calm her down, trying to keep the focus on packing. He went to their safe and gathered up jewelry and their passports. By 2:35, five minutes after their daughter phoned, Michele, as Paul recalled, “was almost hysterical.” He was hugging her, trying to comfort her, but he was also trying to fill his duffel bag. “I’m like, ‘Calm down, we’re okay, just take a breath, you need to get ahold of yourself. We’re not in any danger, you’re fine.’
“‘No,’ said Michele. ‘The fire!’
“I said, ‘I know there’s a fire coming, but it’s not a big deal.’
“‘No, no,’ she said. ‘The fire! ’
“I said, ‘Yes, there’s a fire. Just focus on what we have to do and give me twenty minutes so we can get out of here.’
“‘No! You don’t understand!’ Michele was screaming now. ‘The fire’s on our street! ’”That same combustive energy…was now manifesting itself in the most primal, potent, and destructive way imaginable.
Paul Ayearst, a lifelong resident of the boreal forest, a hard worker, conscientious citizen, and dedicated family man, found himself in the same cognitive dilemma as so many others that day: he had heard the warnings, he had seen the fire growing bigger and closer, and yet, on some crucial, active level, he did not, or could not, acknowledge the immediate and terrible implications of a Rank 6 boreal fire at his doorstep. The danger confronting him, his home, and his beloved family did not fully register until his weeping wife shouted the fact into his face. Even then, his brain, and its fierce loyalty to the status quo, resisted.
But reality does not require human belief in order to be real. The fire was breaking over Beacon Hill like a wave.
“When I looked out the door of the garage,” Paul told me, “I see a wall of flame coming at us. By then, our street was empty and there was four Forestry firefighters running around screaming to everybody to get out. A cop was there, screaming. He’s yelling and screaming, ‘We gotta go! We gotta go!’”
The fire was now at the end of the block, consuming everything in its path. Embers were falling, igniting spot fires in all directions. Michele Ayearst drove away in her car with the dog; their daughter, who had just arrived home from downtown, drove off in her own car with her cats. Both women fully expected Paul to follow in his truck. But, even with the fire bearing down on him, driving before it a blizzard of burning embers and ash, the battle of wills between Paul’s worldview and the insistent, intrusive fact of this fire remained undecided. “I’m there,” Paul told me, “literally got a cop dragging me by the arm— ‘Get the fuck out of here now!’— he’s forcing me out of my house. So I gave the cop like, ‘Get your fuckin’ hands off me!’— gave him a shove, and I went running back towards the house.
“He said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing!’
“I said, ‘I’m locking the door!’
“I never thought the house was going to burn so I’m locking the door. Then, I jump in the truck, and I’m contemplating, ‘Do I leave my Harley? Do I take the truck? Do I take the Harley?’”
It has been observed that people in shock or overwhelmed by traumatic events will focus obsessively on small details. But for a lot of men in Fort McMurray who make their living in and around machines, their motorcycles, vintage cars, and snowmobiles are not small details. Shedding tears over a beloved Harley-Davidson is not unheard of here. But on May 3, this deep allegiance to the internal combustion engine posed a major problem: residents owned so many vehicles, recreational and otherwise, that it was impossible to drive them all out. There was an inescapable irony in Ayearst’s dilemma: that same combustive energy that thrilled, empowered, and enriched them was now manifesting itself in the most primal, potent, and destructive way imaginable. It had taken a hundred years of grit and sweat, hundreds of square miles of bulldozed forest, hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas to access, and finally profit from, the stubborn potential of bituminous sand. And now the remaining “overburden” was unleashing more combustive energy in a single afternoon than all the upgraders combined.
Up above Highway 63, directly opposite Hall 1 and the floodplain of downtown, the neighborhoods of Beacon Hill and Abasand Heights had become, with astonishing speed, the frontline of the fire. Residents were now evacuating en masse. Each community was accessible by only a single road, and they were now completely jammed with fleeing cars and trucks, making their way down to the highway with agonizing slowness through showers of wind-driven embers and billowing clouds of smoke. The same trees that, an hour ago, had made these neighborhoods such attractive places to live were now bursting into flame and crowning with a speed and explosiveness more in line with a napalm drop than with a natural fire. As each new tree and grove ignited, it sent waves of heat over the traffic that felt almost three-dimensional in their intensity, and turned the residents’ sole escape route into a gauntlet.Just outside, the same world where they had raised their children, where some had grown up themselves, appeared now to be made of fire.
In the end, Paul Ayearst chose his truck, escaping his burning street by driving through the neighboring school’s playing fields. When he joined his wife and daughter in the line of traffic, both lanes of the access road were filled with cars, every tree in sight was in flames, and boulder-sized fireballs were rolling over the roadway. Ayearst showed me a picture: “There’s my daughter, there’s my wife, there’s a fireball going over top of the truck and my wife’s driving into it. That’s intense heat.” Inside the vehicles, which had now become fire shelters in addition to escape pods, dashboard thermometers were indicating temperatures that had likely never been registered in a vehicle with live occupants. The thermometer in Paul Ayearst’s truck hit 66°C. “You could feel the heat radiating through the glass,” he said.
Just ahead of Ayearst were his wife and daughter, each in their own car, trying to maintain their composure, their efforts to communicate and reassure each other stymied by the fact that virtually every other person in Fort McMurray was trying to do the same thing. Local cell towers were not only overwhelmed with signal but in danger of burning down themselves. “My daughter’s right in front of me,” Paul explained, “my wife’s in front of her, and I’m trying to talk to them and I couldn’t.”
Opening the window was out of the question. Barely fifteen minutes had elapsed since his daughter had called from downtown, and they were now trapped in a corridor of fire, inching forward at the pace of a Tim Hortons drive-through. Ayearst had no choice now but to acknowledge his new reality: “I’m stuck over here,” he said, “sitting in the fire. I got a wall of flame coming at me and I’ve got my wife and daughter in front of me and traffic’s not moving, and it’s like, ‘How do I keep them safe? How do I get to my son?’” With these questions, Ayearst was speaking for thousands of parents that afternoon.
At that moment, sealed inside his vehicle was now the only safe place to be, but the line between sanctuary and death trap was narrowing. The window glass was too hot to touch and embers were blistering the paint. Just outside, the same world where they had raised their children, where some had grown up themselves, appeared now to be made of fire. Gone was the sun and sky, replaced by this rogue element, which had commandeered the trees, the houses, the very air. As the Ayearsts and their neighbors made their way slowly down the hill, Paul heard a thud and his truck shuddered. He thought he’d been hit, and he had—not by another vehicle, but by a fleeing deer, its fur smoking and aglow with embers. Running blindly out of the flames, it had collided with Ayearst’s passenger door before regrouping and barreling on through the traffic. That impulse, to run away—anywhere—was shared by many others that afternoon, but it was held in check, in part, by the still-deeper fear of being burned alive. But self-discipline, company training, religious faith, and peer pressure were factors, too. These weren’t fly-in workers with no stake in the place; Ayearst and his neighbors had put down roots here. If they broke ranks and took off across the median, they would betray a communal trust. If they did it, who wouldn’t?
Excerpted from Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World by John Vaillant. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hachette UK and Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.