Fire Weather review: Why Canada’s wildfires will only get worse

John Vaillant chronicles the most destructive fire in Canada’s history, and explores what lies ahead, in this timely book.

Since the start of May, hundreds of wildfires have burned across Canada, sending volcanic amounts of smoke and record amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The fires have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and millions of people to the south to breathe polluted air. They have also threatened the heart of Canada’s oil and gas industry in the western province of Alberta.

The Bald Mountain wildfire burns in the Grande Prairie Forest Area in Alberta, Canada on 12 May.
Alamy Stock Photo

These fires are shocking, but they are only a glimpse of how bad things can get in the north. As journalist John Vaillant explains in his timely book Fire Weather: A true story from a hotter world, such fires are increasingly common and extreme in northern boreal forests due to hotter and drier weather driven in part by climate change.

“In all of human history, there has never been a better time to be a fire,” writes Vaillant.

At the book’s core is the riveting tale of a monster wildfire that destroyed the northern city of Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 2016. Fort Mac, as locals know it, is the swashbuckling capital of Canada’s oil sands industry, located in a sea of forest just a few hundred kilometres from the Arctic circle. The bitumen-rich sands there, along with substantial government subsidies, are largely responsible for making Canada the world’s third largest producer of oil. “[Alberta] has had almost as many holes poked it in as Texas,” writes Vaillant.

A fire sparked on a hot day following a dry winter in May 2016 grew rapidly, jumping across the Athabasca river. The heat caused pyrocumulonimbus clouds to form above the blaze, drawing in wind and creating lightning strikes that added to the inferno. Within days, the fire had reduced most of Fort Mac to ashes and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate. It continued to burn for more than a year, destroying nearly 6000 square kilometres of forest. It was the most expensive natural disaster in Canada’s history. “Under the right conditions, a big boreal fire can come on like the end of the world, roaring and unstoppable,” writes Vaillant.

Fire Weather is notable for its vivid descriptions of the destructive power of a wildfire so big it creates its own weather; Vaillant sees fire as something almost alive and hungry. The book also gives a primer on how fires like the unprecedented Fort McMurray blaze are becoming a more common occurrence in a hotter world, not only in Canada or the Arctic, but in the many other places that have watched similarly huge fires sow destruction at the ever-growing “Wildland Urban Interface”, where human development meets the natural world.

But the book delivers more than just a chronicle of a natural disaster or those to come. Using the drama of the wildfire as a way in, Vaillant gives a damning history of the Canadian oil sands industry and the environmental damage it has wrought on Alberta’s forests and waters, as well as its carbon-intensive methods of extracting petroleum from the oil sands, like “squeezing blood from stones”. The book’s descriptions of the scale of the industry required to distil something usable from such a material – dump trucks three stories tall, scars in the land visible from space, enough pipeline to reach the moon and back – are nearly as astonishing as its renderings of the fire. The irony of wildfires wreaking havoc on an industry that has played no small part in creating the conditions that made such extreme fires possible is lost on no one.

Though he sometimes forces the point, Vaillant also proposes that the oil sands industry and fire may be even more fundamentally linked, drawing parallels between the dynamics of a wildfire moving through a forest, and the insatiable appetite of the industries of extractive capitalism that consumed the frontier. From the fur frenzy of the Hudson’s Bay Company decimating beaver populations in the 19th century to the sprawling operations of companies like Syncrude and Suncor, what has unfolded in the north could be called “wildfire economics”, he writes. “Explosive growth of this kind mimics that of fire, and humans seem particularly prone to it.”

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