John Vaillant's Fire Weather looks at the Fort McMurray wildfire and a 'new century of fire'
Fire Weather is a finalist for the $75K Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
John Vaillant is a writer from Vancouver. His first book, The Golden Spruce, which told the story of a rare tree and the man who cut it down, won the 2005 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.
Vaillant's second title The Tiger, a book about a man-eating tiger that terrorized a village in Russia in 1997, was a national bestseller and was a contender on Canada Reads in 2012, defended by Anne-France Goldwater.
He is also the author of the novel The Jaguar's Children, which tells the story of two friends abandoned in the desert by smugglers who promised to bring them to the U.S. Vaillant's writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic and other publications.
In May 2016, Fort McMurray, the hub of Canada's oil industry and America's biggest foreign supplier, was overrun by wildfire. The multi-billion-dollar disaster melted vehicles, turned entire neighbourhoods into firebombs, and drove 88,000 people from their homes in a single afternoon.
Fire Weather explores the legacy of North American resource extraction, the impact of climate science and the symbiotic relationship between humans and combustion.
Vaillant told CBC Books that back in 2016, he was at a writer's retreat, working on a novel, when news of the Fort McMurray wildfire first broke. He was inspired to write what would become Fire Weather as a result.
"Like millions of people around the world, I watched in horror and amazement as the entire city disappeared beneath a pyrocumulus cloud 14 kilometres high. For several days, the possibility that the entire city could be lost was real. It was clear to me then that this was a historic event with serious implications — not just for Alberta, or for Canada, but globally," he said in an email.
It was clear to me then that this was a historic event with serious implications —not just for Alberta, or for Canada, but globally.- John Vaillant on the inspiration behind Fire Weather
"The Fort McMurray Fire was not a freak event; it was a bellwether, and the past six years have borne this out. Since 2016, communities around the world have experienced many of the worst fires, and fire seasons, in human history."
Read an excerpt from Fire Weather below.
On a hot afternoon in May 2016, five miles outside the young petro-city of Fort McMurray, Alta., a small wildfire flickered and ventilated, rapidly expanding its territory through a mixed forest that hadn't seen fire in decades. This fire, further off than the others, had started out doing what most human-caused wildfires do in their first hours of life: working its way tentatively from the point of ignition through grass, forest duff and dead leaves — a fire's equivalent to baby food.
These fuels, in combination with the weather, would determine what kind of fire this one was going to be: a creeping, ground-level smolder doomed to smother in the heavy dew of a cool and windless spring night, or something bigger, more durable and dynamic — a fire that could turn night into day and day into night, that could, unchecked and all-consuming, bend the world to its will.
It was early in the season for wildfires, but Forestry was on alert and, as soon as smoke was spotted, wildland firefighters were dispatched, supported by a helicopter and water bombers. First responders were shocked by what they saw: by the time a helicopter with a water bucket got over it, the smoke was already black and seething, a sign of unusual intensity. Despite the firefighters' timely intervention, the fire grew from four acres to 150 in two hours. Wildfires usually settle down overnight, as the air cools and the dew falls, but by noon the following day this one had impacted nearly 2,000 acres.
Choices that day were stark and few: there was Now, and there was Never.
Its rapid growth coincided with a rash of broken temperature records across the North American subarctic that peaked at 90 degrees on May 3rd 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 a monster 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. Entire neighbourhoods burned to their foundations beneath a towering pyrocumulus cloud typically found over erupting volcanoes. So huge and energetic was this fire-driven weather system that it generated hurricane force winds and lightning that ignited still more fires many miles away. Nearly 100,000 people were forced to flee in what remains the largest, most rapid single-day evacuation in the history of modern fire. All afternoon, cell phones and dash cams captured citizens cursing, praying and weeping as they tried to escape a suddenly annihilating world where fists of heat pounded on the windows, the sky rained fire, and the air came alive in roaring flame. Choices that day were stark and few: there was Now, and there was Never.
Watch | Looking back at the Fort McMurray disaster on CBC News Edmonton:
A week later, the fire's toll conjured images of a nuclear blast: there was not just "damage", there was total obliteration. Trying to articulate what she saw during a tour of the fire's aftermath, one official said, "You go to a place where there was a house and what do you see on the ground? Nails. Piles and piles of nails." 2,400 homes and other structures were destroyed, and thousands more were damaged; 2,300 square miles of forest burned. By the time the first photos were released, the fire had already belched 100 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, much of it from burning cars and houses.
The Fort McMurray Fire, destined to become the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, continued to burn, not for days, but for months. It would not be declared fully extinguished until August, the following year.
Wildfires live and die by the weather, but "the weather" doesn't mean the same thing it did in 1990, or even a decade ago, and the reason the Fort McMurray Fire trended on news feeds around the world in May, 2016 was not only because of its terrifying size and ferocity, but because it was a direct hit — like Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans — on the epicenter of Canada's multi-billion-dollar petroleum industry.
The Fort McMurray Fire, destined to become the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, continued to burn, not for days, but for months.
That industry and this fire represent supercharged expressions of two trends that have been marching in lockstep for the past century and a half. Together, they embody the spiraling synergy between the headlong rush to exploit hydrocarbons at all costs, and the corresponding increase in heat-trapping greenhouse gases that is altering our atmosphere in real time. In the spring of 2016, halfway through the hottest year of the hottest decade in recorded history, a new kind of fire introduced itself to the world.
"No one's ever seen anything like this," said Fort McMurray's exhausted and grieving fire chief on national TV. "The way this thing happened, the way it traveled, the way it behaved — this is rewriting the book."
Excerpted from Fire Weather by John Vaillant published by Knopf Canada. Copyright © 2023 John Vaillant. Reprinted courtesy of Knopf Canada. All rights reserved.