Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast
By John Vaillant
Published by Alfred A Knopf, 2023
This is a brilliant and terrifying book. Prompted by the Fort McMurray fire of May 2016, Vaillant introduces his detailed investigation of the city’s near total incineration with a history of humans’ quest for fire. His historical account of Western Canadian colonization, from (beaver) pelts to petroleum, sets the stage for the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry on energy production. In the aftermath of the Alberta conflagration, what he calls “the reckoning,” he considers some hopeful developments for future survival if/when climate science finally fuels global action.
This book came out in May 2023, right before Canada’s “black summer” (an Australian term) of rampaging wildfires. Now, as autumn and winter progress, we have all heard the toll: 200,000 people displaced, 45 million acres burned, houses destroyed, lives lost, both human and countless animals, and smoke covering vast areas of the planet. Huge amounts of CO2 sent into the skies.
Both a chilling account of one modern fire monster, and a harbinger of future summers in Canada and elsewhere, this is an invaluable source for Canadians seeking to understand why things are getting worse. Moreover, living as half of Canadians do on the Wildland – Urban Interface (WUI), surrounded by flammable material, we are facing unprecedented climate-generated crises of heat waves, low humidity and dry boreal forests that produce such previously unimaginable wildfires. As Vaillant says, to a fire, a house is just another tree.
When he describes the Fort McMurray fire, you feel you are right in the middle of the city – with the local radio station watching it come closer, the residents trying to decide whether to leave, the first responders faced with suddenly finding themselves surrounded by flames. As the fire jumped the Athabasca River and raced up and down ravines around the city, the firefighters found that their usual measures were ineffective. They couldn’t keep up with the spread, and had to devise, on the spot, previously unthinkable, strategies like levelling intact homes to provide a firebreak. Pyro-cumulo-nimbus clouds 200 miles wide, previously only associated with volcanic eruptions, reached high in the sky, and pyrogenic lightning ignited fires within a 50-mile radius. The only two roads out of the city, one going north, the other south, belatedly were crowded with slow moving vehicles surrounded by flames. The miracle was that over 90,000 residents escaped, due in large part to the heroism of those who didn’t give up efforts to contain the ever-expanding wildfire, and a measure of luck. This beast was not to be considered extinguished until August 2017, 15 months later.
So what of the hope Vaillant offers? He identifies May 2021 as the potential beginning of the end of what he labels the “Petrocene” Age. He lists numerous lawsuits and landmark decisions by courts in several countries, particularly the inaugural one against Shell in the Netherlands requiring the company to cut its emissions. These legal challenges (see SCAN! Website for recent actions) have mounted as opposition has grown to the expansion of coal mines, oil exploration, drilling on sea beds; other positive developments include divestment from fossil fuel companies and growth of alternative energy companies and production. Reminding us of the planetary Apocalypse awaiting future generations, he quotes an Australian judge: “None of this will be the fault of Nature itself. It will largely be inflicted by the inaction of this generation of adults in what might fairly be described as the greatest inter-generational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next” (p. 346). With guarded optimism, Vaillant suggests that the “predatory delay” * practiced by the fossil fuel industry for decades has now been widely recognized and accepted. Whether the fossil fuel companies are in retreat or merely regrouping, it remains the task of environmental activists like those in SCAN! to ensure the industry’s extinction, rather than the planet’s ecosystem.
Thanks to Vaillant, when I am surrounded by the WUI in the forests of the Haliburton Highlands, I not only see trees, but also see fuel.
My book review ends here, but it wouldn’t be complete without noting some of Vaillant’s public activities since Fire Weather was published earlier this year. He did an Op-ed in the Globe and Mail during last summers’ fires, which included the evacuations of Yellowknife and other northern communities. When people contacted him asking him if they should leave, he said “Go!” One of the positive legacies of the Fort McMurray fire has been pre-emptive evacuation of communities at risk, as also happened in the Halifax area in 2023. He appeared on a Narwhal panel on the climate crisis. He also took part in federal committee hearings (Natural Resources) about the environmental impacts of continuing fossil fuel reliance (on YouTube) and appeared on a panel on CBC’s The Current. He stated there that the summer wildfires were worse than he could have imagined and stressed the urgency of developing renewable energy resources. Fire Weather is one of the New York Times 10 best books of the year. And he just won the prestigious Baillie-Gifford prize in the UK. Thus, as well as being a much-lauded writer, Vaillant has been a very public figure and advocate for governments and industries to act, and act now.
- “…the deliberate slowing of change to prolong a profitable but unsustainable status quo whose costs will be paid by others” (p. 347)