Edmonton

Fort McMurray brothers decided one had to stay, so the other could go

With his family on highway out, Shyle Pierce decided to make his last stand — if necessary — in a school field

Shyle Pierce

With the fire bearing down on them, Shyle Pierce, above, decided to stay behind so the rest of his family could escape. (Supplied)

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The Pierce brothers live together, work together, and made their choice together — with a wildfire bearing down on their neighbourhood, one would leave and one would stay behind.

Kelly Pierce had a full tank of gas, and five other lives he was responsible for: his wife, his seven-month pregnant daughter, his son-in-law, his two young grandsons.

So he loaded six people into his truck and got ready to go.

"I had me and my dog, and so I wasn't going to fit," said Shyle Pierce, who had only a quarter-tank of gas in his F-150 truck. "I said, 'You guys have got families, I'll stay.'"

So he did.

Pierce family

A view from the front of the Pierce family home in Timberlea on Tuesday as the wildfire swept into the city. (Supplied)

"We could see the fires coming towards us," he said. "Who knows what's going to happen. If that fire jumps across roads … you're stuck in the middle of mayhem. I didn't want to put myself in a situation where the fire was going to come across Highway 63 and, you know, well, kill us all, really."

It was 11 p.m. Tuesday before the rest of the family pulled away from the house on Breukel Crescent. The truck was jammed full of people and belongings. There was an ATV in the truck bed.

"When we left, the fire had circled right around us," said Kelly Pierce, 55. "It horse-shoed us. And none of the traffic was leaving from my neighbourhood. It was all gridlock. There was actually a bus that had caught on fire by sitting too still in the traffic."

Eventually, they made it to the highway, and put the city behind them.

'The roads were not moving'

Once they were gone, Shyle, 44, was alone. He understands that many people will think he was crazy to stay.

Pierce family

A view from the Pierce family backyard early on Tuesday. (Supplied)

"But if you look at my options," he said. "That night, we physically couldn't leave. The roads were not moving. My vehicle was just burning fuel, burning fuel, burning fuel. I had, I think, maybe 34 km on my fuel tank. And I was like, OK, I might as well just stay here."

With the rest of the family on the road to safety late Tuesday, Shyle invented Plan B.

He filled the home's two bathtubs with water.

"I knew if it really went bad and I couldn't leave, I was able to drink water for at least two weeks," he said. There was enough food in the house for him and dog to last at least that long.

'That was the worst night'

He then drove his truck out onto the wide, grassy school field behind the house. He got hoses from nearby yards and soaked a wide swath of grass. If it came to some kind of last stand, that's where he planned to make his.

Pierce family

Kelly Pierce's son-in-law, David, looking out at the same scene a few hours later. (Supplied)

A friend across the street had a police scanner, and they sat up much of that night and listened.

"That was the worst night," said Shyle, who rents a room in his brother's house.

On Wednesday morning, most of the smoke was gone. The day was bright and clear. He rode around on his bicycle in Thickwood and Timberlea to see if friends' homes were still standing.

They were.

But more than a dozen homes burned on Walnut Crescent, several blocks away, and more were destroyed in the Prospect area.

He spent much of each day in the garage so he could hear what was happening. It was eerily quiet. Only twice in all that time did he hear a car drive by.

Finally, Kelly called. The brothers, who work together at Suncor, about 30 km north of the city, came up with Plan C.

There was another truck in the driveway, a white Durango. There were no keys, but Kelly suggested his brother drill a hole in the gas-tank, which he thought was at least half-full.

Shyle used a battery operated drill and collected the gas into ice cream buckets.

He knew then he had enough fuel to reach the gas station at Wandering River.

On Saturday morning, he finally decided to leave. He drove down Confederation Drive toward the highway. He saw cars abandoned in middle of the road, on both sides of the road.

"These were the guys who I would have been, if I would have left that night," he said. My truck would have been on the side of the road like that."

He eventually joined an RCMP-led convoy and followed it south.

Now that his lonely ordeal is over, and his family is safe, he's had time to think about the past few days, and the future.

"When I was by myself, I was in charge of my own destiny," he said. "I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew exactly what I was going to do. At no point did I find myself in any imminent danger."

What happened to the city was, he said, "an absolute, apocalyptic disaster. I've never been in a situation like this before, but I've never seen more people who wanted to help other people."

Soon, he said, it will be time to make a plan. One for the future.

"What do you do?" he asked rhetorically. "You go back and rebuild. Make it stronger and bigger."

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