When John Vaillant’s newest book on Canadian wildfires, Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, was released in the US, Canadian wildfires became a momentary obsession for Americans.
As more than 400 wildfires raged throughout Canada’s vast boreal forests, skies in the Northeastern United States became hazy, orange, and dangerous. Smoke from Quebec choked New York City’s air quality, making it the most polluted in the world, and residents of Philadelphia were urged to stay indoors. The book gained great publicity for Vaillant, but it was incredibly grim, akin to publishing a book on pandemics in March 2020 or a history of terrorist attacks in September 2001.
Fire Weather recounts an earlier Canadian wildfire that took place between May 2016 and a year later. Originally dubbed “Fire 009” but eventually known as “the Fort McMurray Fire,” it ravaged the city in northern Alberta that shares its name and caused 100,000 people to evacuate in a single day. Although there were no casualties, the damage done to the land was catastrophic. “Entire neighborhoods burned to their foundations beneath a towering pyrocumulus cloud typically found over erupting volcanoes,” writes Vaillant. The fire destroyed more than 2,500 structures and 2,300 square miles of forest.
It remained the most expensive disaster in Canadian history until last week. Although the specific fires responsible for the smoke that made it into the United States aren’t directly linked to the climate crisis as much as those in Western Canada or California, the warming planet is still causing an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires.
Vaillant’s book offers essential context for why our world’s forests are becoming more flammable. Fire Weather draws on brief histories of white settlement in northern Alberta, bitumen production, and climate denialism to explain not just what happened when Fort McMurray burned, but also why those specific conditions arose.
To understand this fire, one must first understand the city it destroyed. Nearly all the residents work in oil, and, like similar boomtowns in North Dakota and Texas, Fort McMurray lures tough workers willing to endure long hours, a relentless pace, and an isolated lifestyle for high wages. The median household income is almost $200,000 USD, and residents leave before they get too old, resulting in almost no funerals. Fort McMurray lies in the middle of the Athabasca Tar Sands, the natural home to bitumen, the viscous semi-solid form of petroleum known also as asphalt, that has become the center of Canada’s profitable oil and gas industry.
Bitumen extraction is a complicated, resource-heavy process, but major corporations like Syncrude, Suncor, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Sinopec have invested heavily in expensive operations to extract profits from the rocky, tarry land. As Vaillant notes, “Fort McMurray has become the center of the largest, most expensive, most energy-intensive hydrocarbon recovery project on Earth. A rough estimate of investment to date is half a trillion dollars.” When the fire struck in May 2016, the halt forced all the extraction applications to stop abruptly.
It is worth noting that this is not a straightforward disaster story or a character-driven narrative. Although Vaillant introduces the people of Fort McMurray and describes how they survived the fire, his descriptions of them are quite superficial. While reading the book, the reader doesn’t feel that they have truly gotten to know them. In fact, the characters are almost as shallowly presented as they would be in a brief television interview. Instead, a whole chapter is dedicated to the fundamental nature of fire, with Vaillant using lines from Paradise Lost and Macbeth. Vaillant’s literary flourishes and narrative tangents are often charming, though sometimes distracting as in the bizarre footnote about the national obesity rate and gas usage. At times, one wishes that he had gone into greater detail about the individual residents of Fort McMurray since they are such unique, intense, and often fascinating individuals.