Fire Weather, The Making of a Beast by John Vaillant
Wild fires are common in Canada’s forests. But what causes an ordinary forest fire to become a fire beast, a monster that defies normal behaviour?
Fire Weather, The Making of a Beast by John Vaillant, longlisted for the 2023 UK Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction, is a book that explains what brings a fire monster into being at the same time as spinning a narrative that reads like the script of a horror movie. Fire Weather is centred on the 2016 fire at Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Fort Mac, a petrocity of 88,000 people, is right in the middle of the boreal forest. There is a fire fighting acronym, WUI (rhymes with phooey) that stands for Wildland-Urban Interface. It refers to urban areas built into forests with no buffer zones. While there have been legendary fires in the boreal before (after all, black spruce is basically a fire torch full of resin which firefighters call “gas on a stick”), Vaillant makes a strong case for why this fire was different.
The boreal forest normally has its own controls. To counteract black spruce, there are aspen and popular trees, known as “asbestos trees”. Their moisture laden leaves and pulpy, water-retaining wood can act like a brake on forest fires. Indigenous communities encourage aspen groves around popular hunting and fishing camps.
In 2016 changes in weather, that of persistent high temperatures, extremely low humidity, strong winds and dry fuel, came together to create “crossover”, intensity that could be measured in real time. This looks like fire jumping from the forest floor to the canopy causing trees to not just ignite but explode sending flaming embers huge distances. Once the fire hit the suburbs, the heat was so intense that the houses vaporized. This was both shocking and not surprising as houses are basically petroleum products; asphalt shingles, vinyl siding, lots of plastic and laminates. “We don’t have a forest fire problem, we have a home ignition problem. As soon as you come to that realization, it changes your view on wildfire.” (Ray Rasker, cofounder of Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire)
We are beyond the scope of normal fire. These fires don’t just burn, they vaporize – just like lasers, atom bombs and the sun. They create firenadoes. They suck in water and turn it to vapour. Steel melts, glass liquifies. What looks like smoke is really a combination of soot, combustive gases, toxic chemicals and steam. At Fort Mac, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water vapour were carried skyward to thirty thousand feet above the fire where it condensed and froze. Hurricane force downdrafts hurled shrapnel of black hail back to earth. This black hail was carbon-infused ice pellets; all that remained of the trees and the houses. The details of the Fort Mac fire sound like stories from the Old Testament or Greek mythology!
Fire Weather also has a human face. Vaillant interviewed first responders, people evacuating, firefighters overcome by a situation for which they were never trained. Aside from ongoing physical effects of breathing in all the toxicity, there is also a lot of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome – including in children who were in vehicles leaving the city on only 2 ways out with fire on both sides burning the paint off the cars.
The final section of Fire Weather is called Reckoning. Vaillant muses on the dissonance between the auto industry’s preoccupation with “safety” and how comfortable we all are travelling with “powerful, poisonous bombs positioned directly behind our children’s car seats.” If the exhaust fumes from a Silverado’s tail pipe were directed back into the cab, the driver and all her passengers would be dead in minutes. If the fumes were directed into her living room, all would be dead in an hour. “But somehow, when we run our cars ‘outside’, in our shared environment, all the soot and toxic gases magically disappear.”
The all-powerful petro companies fit the description of “a state in the guise of a merchant”. Jack Blum, a Washington energy lawyer and former Senate investigator, put this in twentieth century terms: “There is no wad of cash like this anywhere on earth. This is a wad of cash to break banks, even governments.” It’s no surprise that companies like Exxon direct climate policy on a global scale.
But…there are encouraging developments. The insurance industry, seeing the writing on the wall, is tracking the costs of climate disasters. Mines, drilling rigs, refineries and pipelines cannot operate without insurance and the insurance companies are not happy. Legal challenges, especially those mounted by young people, are starting to gain traction and wins, much like what happened with the tobacco industry. Divestment from fossil fuel industries is picking up speed. In January of 2020, JPMorgan Chase, the world’s largest financier to the fossil fuel industry wrote “Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that planet Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.” (Italics are Vaillant’s)
There is a section of colour photos from Fort McMurray in the centre of this book. The images are arresting. One stands out. In the midst of monochrome grey, everything reduced to or covered with ash, bright tulips rise out of the destruction. Nature wants to live.