Book Review: FIRE WEATHER by John Vaillant

John Vaillant’s Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World is not only the story of the devastating 2016 Fort McMurray fire in Alberta, Canada, but also a history of fire, the oil industry, climate science, and where we go from here. In addition to the page-turning narrative of the fire that raged through Fort McMurray, Fire Weather provides the backdrop leading up to the event, as well as the lessons from its aftermath.

The Fort McMurray fire, ironically, incinerated the epicenter of Canada’s oil industry, in which fossil fuels created the conditions to make such a fire possible in the first place: “that same combustive energy that thrilled, empowered, and enriched them was now manifesting itself in the most primal, potent, and destructive way imaginable.” The fire, known as MWF-009 or Fire 009, was the largest ever recorded in North America and burned for more than a year.

The first section of the book, Origin Stories, offers a cultural, geographical, and ecological history of Alberta and Fort McMurray. Before oil, colonizers decimated animal populations for their fur, highlighting the grim fact that even hundreds of years ago, humans seemed determined to destroy “the very ecosystem that enabled them to grow so powerful in the first place.” 

The explosive growth of the petroleum industry in Alberta (half of all American oil comes from Canada, 90 percent of which is from Fort McMurray) “mimics that of fire … each of those events has the power to change the fortunes of a region and its inhabitants overnight.” Fort McMurray was a gold rush for workers, a place where a hauler driver could make $250,000 a year, a pipe fitter $150, 000. It was a place where (mostly) men could make incredible money, at a steep cost: “The overtime is irresistible, but the toll those hours take can be crushing, and camp life can be soul-killing.” One resident told Vaillant, “Fort McMurray has the youngest demographic of almost any city in Canada and we have seven times less deaths because nobody retires here, nobody dies here; they all leave.” 

The camps in which workers live between twelve-hour shifts look like “polar research stations, or penitentiaries,” and there are high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as assault, spousal abuse, and car accidents (“there is something lethal about ice and oil and money and men”). 

This first section also covers the history and behavior of fire, and Vaillant’s meticulous research makes this prelude to the main event fascinating. He notes, for example, that while nature starts fires—volcanoes, lightning, even animals (“there are species of hawk and kite that will pluck burning twigs from the margins of bushfires to drop them elsewhere, starting new ones”)—this is “nothing compared to the number of fires humans make.” From cooking to heating our homes to driving our cars, humans across the world light billions of fires every day. 

The second section, Fire Weather, tells the story of the Fort McMurray fire with the tension and pacing of a horror novel. Fire 009 was first spotted on May 1, 2016, at 4 p.m. By 10 a.m. on May 2, it had consumed 2,000 acres, and by 11 a.m. it was up to 3,000 acres—with zero containment. 

Despite the high winds and temperatures creating extreme fire conditions—it was thirty degrees hotter than the average for May, with humidity “typical of Death Valley in July”—life in Fort McMurray carried on. “Today, most mayors presented with such a forecast would order evacuations immediately,” writes Vaillant. “But 2016—as recent as it is—was a more innocent time.” 

Fire 009 was soon categorized as “out of control,” and firefighters didn’t attempt to confront the fire, only to slow its progress. One of the biggest dangers was the embers, which, in combination with the 25 mile-per-hour wind gusts, can fly up to a mile ahead of a fire, starting new ones along the way. 

On May 3, the city’s 90,000 residents were instructed to shelter in place and to have a plan. “Even as [the mayor] spoke, the fire was intensifying a half mile west of the only road in town.” Yet, Vaillant points out, even those with experience and who could see the danger of this fire knew that planning is complicated: “How do you talk about a fearsome thing without instilling fear … Is it possible to prepare people to flee for their lives without instilling panic?” The possibility of the fire engulfing the city wasn’t discussed “not only because it was too awful to contemplate, but also because the notion of such a catastrophe was, for many, simply inconceivable.”

Fire Weather not only tells the story of the Fort McMurray fire; it highlights myriad other devastating fires, all over the world and throughout the centuries. It’s within this context that readers can grasp that today’s fires are unlike anything humans have ever seen. Fire 009 was labeled “past resources,” the most extreme designation for a fire, meaning that its power is far beyond the resources available to fight it. “Able to self-generate from a single spark, explode like a bomb, turn on a dime, and fly over obstacles, fire possesses an unparalleled capacity for random movement and rapid growth … the citizenry of Fort McMurray discovered that their city was burning mostly by personal observation and word of mouth.”

The hour-by-hour story of Fire 009 is told through Vaillant’s detailed and meticulous research and interviews with survivors, from firefighters to machine operators to city residents. It is astonishing how quickly the events unfolded—one resident said she got in the shower when the sky was blue, and when she got out, the sky was black with smoke. 

“Of the four most abundant fuels available to the fire on May 3, three of them were trees: black spruce, balsam poplar, and aspen. The fourth was houses.” Many of Fort McMurray’s homes had vinyl siding and windows, and linoleum floors. Their modern furnishings, Vaillant notes, are highly flammable, comprised of plastic, woods held together by glues and resins, and polyester and nylon furniture stuffed with polyurethane. These petroleum products cause homes to burn like refineries. Added to which are vehicles with gas tanks and tires, gas grills with propane, all of which began exploding with forces no one had ever seen. Firefighters, other witnesses, and security cameras saw entire homes disappear completely within five minutes’ time. 

Despite the horrors, 88,000 people were evacuated by the next morning with no deaths or injuries, though the fire remained zero percent contained. But the physical devastation was great, and the emotional toll on first responders was intense. To get ahead of the fire, machine operators worked alongside firefighters: “Removing fuel ahead of the fire was the only way to break its relentless momentum. This meant knocking down intact, unburned houses, most of them brand-new—and not one or two, but by the block.” 

After one week, 90,000 people were evacuated; 2,500 structures were destroyed and 500 damaged; 1,000 square miles of forest had burned, and there was no end in sight. Within three weeks, one million acres of forest had burned, and the fire was still growing.

Fire crews continued working into the fall, and without its residents, the city faced new problems: in homes, food spoiled, and maggots and flies descended. Mice and rats filled homes and supermarkets where food was rotting. In one day, a local insurance company went from zero claims to 50,000, not only for burned homes but vehicles, water damage, smoke damage, mold, melted siding, and shrapnel damage from nearby homes exploding. The fire would ultimately cost $10 billion and would not be declared extinguished until August 2, 2017, fifteen months after it started.

The book’s third section, Reckoning, covers the aftermath of Fire 009 with a focus on the history of climate science and policy—not only the inaction but the purposeful additions of even more carbon-intensive products. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of Fire 009, Alberta turned away from climate action and doubled down on oil. 

Vaillant wonders: Can we gain control of our future? This is, he writes, humanity’s greatest challenge “since we (almost) mastered fire. But this time, it is not fire we have to master, but ourselves.”

No place on the planet is immune to ghastly fires—as Fire Weather reveals, every continent, in both hemispheres, has experienced fire devastation, from Greenland to Tasmania. When it comes to global warming, “one among many ways to quantify these changes is through fire behavior: now, virtually every year, on every continent where anything grows, records are being broken for ambient temperature as well as for acres burned and homes destroyed.” Our world is not the same, and we will continue to see this through fire: “This is not planet Earth as we found it. This is a new place—a fire planet we have made, with an atmosphere more conducive to combustion than at any time in the past three million years.”

When it comes to saving our planet, Vaillant focuses on fossil fuels, with only a brief mention of methane (it would’ve been great to see noted that animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined). But his point is clear: “The willful and ongoing failure to act on climate science is unforgivable … the punishment will be shared by all, but most severely by the young, the innocent, and the as-yet unborn.”

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00