A wildfire moves towards the town of Anzac from Fort McMurray, Alberta., on May 4, 2016.
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press/AP
A wildfire moves towards the town of Anzac from Fort McMurray, Alberta., on May 4, 2016.
A wildfire moves towards the town of Anzac from Fort McMurray, Alberta., on May 4, 2016. (Photo: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press/AP)

When the Fire Came for Fort McMurray

In 2016, a wildfire jumped the Athabasca River and headed straight for Fort McMurray, an Alberta oil town 600 miles south of the Arctic Circle. In this excerpt from ‘Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World,’ John Vaillant chronicles the moment the blaze enters town, forcing nearly 90,000 people to flee in what remains the largest, most rapid single-day evacuation in the history of modern fire.

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Canada is the world’s fourth largest oil producer and the third largest exporter. Nearly half of all American oil imports—around four million barrels per day—come from there, the equivalent of one ultra-large crude carrier ship every 24 hours. Of that vast quantity, almost 90 percent originates in Fort McMurray, Alberta, a town of 66,000 full-time residents located 600 miles north of the U.S. border and 600 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Fort McMurray is an anomaly in North America—the city is an island of industry in an ocean of trees. The nearest major city and source of assistance is five hours away. Despite being virtually unknown outside of Canada and the petroleum industry, Fort McMurray has become, in the last two decades, the fourth largest city in the North American subarctic after Edmonton, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. In terms of overtime logged and dollars earned it is, without a doubt, the hardest working, highest paid municipality on the continent. In 2016, the median household income was nearly $200,000 a year. Fort McMurray has earned several nicknames over the years, and one of them is Fort McMoney.

On a hot afternoon in May 2016, five miles outside Fort McMurray, a small wildfire flickered to life, rapidly expanding through a forest that hadn’t seen fire in decades. Its growth coincided with a rash of broken temperature records across the North American subarctic that peaked at 90 degrees Fahrenheit on May 3 in a place where temperatures are typically in the 60s. On that day, Tuesday, a smoke- and wind-suppressing inversion lifted, winds whipped up to twenty knots and the fire leaped across the Athabasca River. Within hours, Fort McMurray was overtaken by a regional apocalypse that drove serial firestorms through the city from end to end—for days. In this excerpt from “Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World,” writer John Vaillant chronicles the moment the fire enters town, forcing nearly 90,000 people to flee in what remains the largest, most rapid single-day evacuation in the history of modern fire.

*This introduction was adapted from the book’s prologue —The Editors

The dominant forest type on the Boreal Plain is known as mixed-wood forest, and three of its most common species—balsam poplar, aspen, and black spruce—grow in dense groves in and around Fort McMurray. Of these three, black spruce is the most volatile—so volatile, in fact, that boreal firefighters call it “gas on a stick.” With branches that grow all the way to the forest floor, these trees, already sticky with flammable sap, have their ladder fuels built in. Black spruce evolved to burn and will do so ferociously, with little provocation. Aspen and poplar, meanwhile, have been called “asbestos trees.” With their moisture-laden leaves and relatively pulpy, water- retaining wood, they can function almost like a brake on forest fires—to the point that Indigenous communities encourage aspen groves around popular hunting and fishing camps, a practice some settler communities have imitated.

There was a lot of poplar and aspen growing in and around Fort McMurray, but on May 3, in the middle of the spring dip, it didn’t seem to matter. Radiant heat—the kind projected by a forest fire—travels at the speed of light and, that afternoon, it was causing these normally fire-resistant trees to desiccate and ignite instantaneously, almost before the fire was upon them—something local firefighters had never seen before. By the time the fire reached the back side of Beacon Hill, the heat was so intense that it was causing these trees not to catch on fire, but to explode.

Chris Vandenbreekel, a boyish, bespectacled 25-year-old news director for Mix 103 FM, a local Top 40 station, had been following the weekend fire closely and was present at every press conference. Downtown at the Mix 103 studio, he recalled when the seriousness of the situation dawned on him. “It wasn’t until around the 12:30 point, as Bernie Schmitte was leaving my office. The wind picked up toward the town and that was kind of an ‘Oh crap’ moment.” (Understatement had been a running theme that morning.) “It wasn’t long after that,” he said, “that I started getting phone calls from Abasand and Beacon Hill saying, ‘The fire looks  really close, what should we do?’ So I was making calls to [municipal] Communications, and they were saying, ‘Yeah, the firefighters are fighting it; it’s not a huge danger to the communities just yet.’”

Vandenbreekel dutifully relayed this information to anxious callers. So far, there had been no evacuation order.

Paul Ayearst lived in Beacon Hill, and his neighbors were among those making anxious calls to Mix 103. The 46-year-old Ayearst was a rarity in Fort McMurray: he was raised here, arriving as a child in 1975 when, as he put it, “Dad drug us up here looking for work.” The elder Ayearst found it at J. Howard Pew’s Great Canadian Oil Sands, where he started out as a beltwalker. All day long, he strode the black and broken earth, inspecting the miles of conveyor belts and thousands of rollers carrying freshly dug bitumen from the ten-story, 300-foot-long dragline shovel to the giant crusher at the plant. It was, literally, a dead-end job, and, with the company’s help, he trained up to millwright. Like his father, Paul Ayearst made a home for himself in town, where he got into selling and servicing heavy equipment, a critical and lucrative business up here.

A little after 1:00 p.m., Ayearst was downtown, leaving Moxie’s Bar and Grill on his way back to work, when he registered the plume. “You could see that big cloud coming over Beacon Hill, so I figured, you know what, fuck it, I’m going home—be with the family.”

When Paul arrived, his wife, Michele, a homemaker, had the radio on. Paul went into the backyard and tinkered with his garden hose. Like everyone else in Beacon Hill, Paul and Michele were in a holding pattern, waiting for an update on the fire. As a local kid, Paul had grown up with fires on the horizon the same way Texans grow up with tornadoes and Newfoundlanders grow up with blizzards: at a certain time of year, they’re always around—sometimes closer, sometimes farther, but rarely impinging on your daily life. It was the same for Michele, who had grown up right in Beacon Hill, and they still lived within sight of her childhood home. Their house stood on a loop called Beaveridge Close. Theirs was an established neighborhood of what now would be considered “starter homes,” but because this was Fort McMurray, the Ayearsts’ 40-year-old, single-story bungalow was appraised at $650,000. Just to the south of them were two elementary schools, some playing fields, a minor league hockey arena, and a Mormon church. Beyond that was the thickly settled south end of Beacon Hill, and the only road off the hilltop. All told, about 2,200 people lived up there, in six hundred houses. An island unto itself, Beacon Hill was one of the smaller neighborhoods in Fort McMurray, but it was more than twice the size of any other community for 200 miles around.

It wasn’t until 2:05 p.m. that the first evacuation orders went live. Issued by the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort McMurray, they called for the mandatory evacuation of Beacon Hill, Abasand, and Grayling Terrace, a small enclave on the left bank of the Hangingstone River, just west of Fire Hall 1. Centennial Trailer Park, due south of Beacon Hill, had remained under mandatory evacuation since the previous day, and now the one hundred trailer homes located there in angled rows were in the process of burning to the ground. The Ayearsts did not hear the first alert, perhaps because they were out of earshot, or because the station they were listening to did not air it. The first inkling they had of an evacuation was over the PA system of the nearby Good Shepherd Elementary School. At around 2:20, they could hear the names of children being called, notifying them that their parents had arrived.

The danger confronting him, his home, and his beloved family did not fully register until his weeping wife shouted the fact into his face.

Paul and Michele Ayearst had two children of their own, 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!’”

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.

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 151°F. “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.”

The view out Paul Ayearst’s truck window as he drove out of town
The view out Paul Ayearst’s truck window as he drove out of town (Courtesy Paul Ayearst)

Opening the window was out of the question. Barely 15 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?

A camp manager and type A marathoner named Dave Dubuc was confronted with this very question while trying to get out of Timberlea. His wife, Joanne, their three children, and two cats were in the truck with him, traffic was at a standstill, the fire was moving fast, and getting trapped and overrun was a real possibility. For Dubuc, the choice was stark and therefore simple: “I have to save my wife and children,” he thought to himself as he prepared to turn on his company truck’s roof light and escape across a sidewalk and through a park. Dubuc is a problem solver with the mental toughness of a competitive athlete, but his wife is strong in a different way: when Joanne realized what her husband was doing, she admonished him. “Don’t be that guy,” she said. Dubuc settled himself then and stayed in line—for hours. It wasn’t easy. “There were times, driving out,” he said, “that the fire was burning six feet from my tires.”

With Hell on your heels and small children depending on you, your priorities shift, and so does the math. Ali Jomha is a local imam who runs a halal butcher shop downtown on Franklin Avenue. He is a pious man, deeply involved in the Muslim community, and he bears a striking resemblance—in both looks and manner—to Al Pacino. On May 3, caught in traffic with everyone else, the fire forced Jomha to consider an imponderable dilemma. “If you’re driving in the car, fleeing,” he proposed to me, “and you and your wife have in the car four kids, five kids, and for God’s sake something happens to the car in front of you—which kid you going to pick and choose and run? My brother has five kids; my other brother has five kids; I have three. Going bumper to bumper, we saw the fire crossing the highway. If one vehicle burns, it will transfer to another. If I have to run away from the fire, how many kids can I take? That’s a strange feeling.”

What would astonish people later, in addition to the bravery of police and first responders who helped guide the evacuation, was the relative order that drivers maintained as they crept along, bumper to bumper, with children and dogs whimpering in the back seats and many in tears themselves, while sparks and firebrands rained down on them, flaring and rattling off their hoods and windshields. This kind of civic-minded restraint and courage was the norm, not the exception, and the many dashcam videos taken that day bear this out. Paul Ayearst and his family caravan, stuck as they were at the end of their own slow-motion convoy, would be among the last civilians out of Beacon Hill. Somewhere behind them, where home and safety used to be, came the sound of things exploding.

From “FIRE WEATHER: A True Story from a Hotter World” by John Vaillant, to be published by Knopf on June 6, 2023. Copyright © by John Vaillant

Lead Photo: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press/AP