“Is fire alive?” the journalist and author John Vaillant asks early in his new book, “Fire Weather.” I rolled my eyes, even as Vaillant ticks off a dozen lifelike characteristics — it grows, it breathes, it travels in search of nourishment — because the answer seemed so obvious: No. Of course not.
Some 300 pages later, the question didn’t feel quite so ludicrous.
Vaillant tells the story of a colossal wildfire that, in the spring of 2016, torched much of Fort McMurray, a small city carved out of central Canada’s boreal forest. It is a tale of firefighters, homeowners and local authorities confronting a conflagration so intense that it generated its own weather systems, complete with hurricane-force winds and bolts of lightning.
More than that, it is a real-life fable about the causes and consequences of climate change. Fort McMurray, with a population of about 90,000, was created so that energy companies could extract bitumen — a sticky black substance that can be converted into synthetic crude oil, diesel and a variety of other petroleum-based products — from the tar sands of northern Alberta.
More than 40 percent of American oil imports come from Fort McMurray. In other words, the gargantuan mining and processing operation — so vast that it is visible from 6,000 miles above Earth’s surface — is a physical manifestation of the forces that have led to a warming world.
It is also a physical manifestation of the grave threats posed by that warming world.
A few decades ago, this would have been an unlikely setting for an out-of-control inferno, especially in the cool, damp months of spring. But in May 2016, temperatures soared into the high 80s — almost 30 degrees Fahrenheit above normal — and the air was as dry as a desert. The conditions, Vaillant writes, were “as conducive to fire as is possible anywhere on Earth.”
The small fire was first spotted, in the forest southwest of Fort McMurray, at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 1. When it didn’t quickly sputter out, it was given an impersonal code by firefighters: MWF-009. The little brush fire grew exponentially, fueled by crispy trees and an unlucky wind. Even as the burgeoning blaze rushed toward the city, authorities were slow to grasp the magnitude of the danger. Before it was over, locals would rechristen 009 “the Beast.”
To describe what happened next, Vaillant takes full advantage of resources that previous generations of journalists could only have dreamed of: cellphone cameras, dashboard cameras, security cameras, even stuffed animals with nanny cameras nestled inside. Countless people posted thousands of photos and videos to social media, and the digital trove, as well as interviews with witnesses, enables Vaillant to vividly describe the fire as it devoured Fort McMurray.
There was the instant that a clear blue sky was obliterated by “a towering black cloud shot through with streaks of orange and seething with flames,” transforming a sunny spring day into a long, dark night. There were the sounds of car tires, gas tanks and propane-fueled grills detonating in awful synchrony as the fire ripped through tightly packed neighborhoods. There was the spooky view from a nanny cam as flames tentatively lapped at a window before incinerating the entire house.
It is a gripping yarn, though the storytelling is at times slowed by Vaillant’s wanderings. There’s a painstaking history of the use of bitumen over the millenniums. There’s a discourse on the quasi-spiritual nature of fire in its many forms, which eventually meanders into a meditation on oxygen and human breathing. There’s a lengthy rehashing of the roots of climate science, activism and denialism.
With a few poignant exceptions — including the story of a Fort McMurray welder named Wayne McGrath, who valiantly tries to fight off the blaze and his own demons — “Fire Weather” lacks many memorable human characters. But Vaillant fills that void with an unforgettable protagonist: fire itself.
A raging wildfire is hard to fathom for anyone who has not stood in its path. Vaillant is clearly in awe as he lovingly details 009’s inner workings and apocalyptic fallout.
The forest surrounding Fort McMurray consisted largely of black spruces that were dripping with flammable sap. As the tall trees ignited, the fire inhaled oxygen from below. That spawned powerful and sustained winds that screamed up toward the treetops and then gusted embers and sparks hundreds of yards out from the fire, fueling its relentless growth.
In the center of the fire, a jet of fast-rising, superheated air sucked hundreds of thousands of gallons of water — from fire hoses, broken pipes, icy rivers — skyward. Miles overhead, the air cooled and the water vapor turned to carbon-infused ice, and “hurricane-force downdrafts hurled fusillades of black hail” back to the ground.
Vaillant notes that homes used to be crammed with natural materials: wooden tables and chairs, sofas stuffed with cotton, curtains made of lace — flammable, yes, but not compared with today’s combustible houses. Now furniture is made of plastic or wood composites, held together with resins and glues and coated or filled with synthetic materials like nylon and polyurethane. “Today,” Vaillant writes, “it is common to find oneself sitting or sleeping on furniture composed almost entirely of petroleum products.”
No wonder then that within minutes, newly built homes in Fort McMurray were reduced to cinder.
Vaillant anthropomorphizes fire. Not only does it grow and breathe and search for food; it strategizes. It hunts. It lays in wait for months, even years. Vaillant even quotes someone comparing forest fires to farmers cultivating their crops.
Fire, of course, is not alive in any technical sense. But that doesn’t make it a less daunting antagonist. Climate change has warmed the air and dried the soil, creating tinderbox conditions. As Vaillant notes, “Around the world, fires are burning over longer seasons and with greater intensity than at any other time in human history.” The catastrophe that ravaged Fort McMurray is probably an omen of what lies ahead.
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