Early on in Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, John Vaillant makes one thing very clear – “there has never been a better time to be a fire.”
The latest book from the bestselling and award-winning nonfiction writer is a detailed look at Fire 009, the wildfire that overtook the boom town of Fort McMurray, Alberta, in the spring of 2016 and burned for months. But as in his previous books (The Golden Spruce, The Tiger), Vaillant is also interested in telling a larger story about humans and our interactions with the natural world.
After a brief prologue that introduces Fire 009 – which became known as the Fort McMurray fire after it burned through the city, razing about 2,400 homes and buildings and forcing the evacuation of 88,000 people – Vaillant zooms out to take a closer look at the origin story of Fort McMurray, the city in the wilderness that boomed after oil and gas prospectors realized they could harvest bitumen, the tar-like substance found in the clay and sand of northern Alberta, and refine it into oil. Vaillant also examines the story of our relationship with fire – how humans have harnessed its energy as a kind of superpower to cook our food, heat our homes, and fuel our vehicles.
After establishing these origin stories, Vaillant returns to May 2016 and paints an intense and vivid portrait of Fire 009’s relentless assault on the city. Detailed scenes from around Fort McMurray, based on interviews with survivors and the media coverage from the time, transport readers to the press conferences that failed to adequately warn people of the fire’s threat, to the dry cleaners where people picked up and dropped off clothes even as they prepared to evacuate, and to the Save-On-Foods, where a tank full of lobsters “were left to their own devices.” The fire’s story is propulsive and terrifying, and underlines the inherent risks of life in the wildland urban interface (WUI) – places where a human-built environment meets a natural one. The WUI may be a selling point for real estate, but it heightens the threat of natural disasters such as wildfires by an order of magnitude.
Vaillant makes clear that although Fire 009 was a first in many ways – it was the first North American wildfire to cause the complete evacuation of a city, for example – it won’t be the last of its kind. Because of climate change and global warming, wildfires can burn longer, faster, and more uncontrollably than ever before. The “fire weather” of the title refers to the set of meteorological parameters that allow a fire to either flourish or die out. Because overnight temperatures during the summers no longer reliably dip, wildfires don’t take the night off. Because spring starts sooner and with warmer temperatures, as experienced again in Alberta in 2023, there is more dry fuel in the forest. Because permafrost is melting, it, too, becomes fuel for wildfires.
Fire Weather can be difficult to read. Learning of the multiple scientists (Arvid Högbom in 1894, Guy Callendar in 1938, Roger Revelle in 1956, etc.) who warned governments and oil and gas multinationals of the near-certain climate change humans would cause by continuing to burn fossil fuels – each an ignored Cassandra of his time – can be spirit-crushing.
Vaillant, however, is ultimately an optimist. Near the charred ruins of a house in Redding, California, where a wildfire roared through in 2018, Vaillant spots three amaryllis flowers pushing through the dirt. Nature continually renews despite destruction, and Vaillant suggests that humans might be able to do the same, though it will require us to choose regeneration instead of combustion.