Book Review: “Fire Weather”

Review Fire Weather
“Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World”
by John Vaillant
‎Knopf, 2023
432 pages, hardcover, $32.50

On May 1, 2016, a fire broke out in the boreal forest of northern Alberta. What began as a small fire, 4 acres, grew into a 2,000-acre wildfire within the span of a day. The dry spring, following a dry year, created favorable conditions for fire. The problem wasn’t the forests. Trees are no different than they were 50 years ago, writes John Vaillant in his latest book, “Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World.” The problem is our changed climate: the air is warmer; the soil is dryer. And not just in Canada. Across North America and around the world, fires are burning over longer seasons and with greater intensity.

By the third day, the fire known as MWF-009 had grown into a monster — a fire so huge that it generated its own weather, with hurricane-force winds and lightning that ignited still more fires. It raged through the spruce forests, jumped across the Athabasca River, and ripped through the oilsands boomtown of Fort McMurray, driving nearly 90,000 people from their homes in a single afternoon. The fire was so hot (more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit) that entire buildings burned to ash in five minutes.

“Fire Weather” begins innocuously enough, with a history of the discovery of oil and the rush to develop the oilsands. But it quickly changes into a page-turning, pulse-racing tale of terror and heroism. Through interviews with firefighters and citizens, cellphone videos, Twitter and news reports, the author recreates the events of May 3. Hour-by-hour he shows how fire crews and residents responded to the encroaching flames.

Wildfire crews bulldozed trees, creating firebreaks, and planes dropped water. Fire captains studied weather data and output from computer programs that calculated fire intensity and rate of spread. But with an abundance of dry fuel, and fanned by a steady wind, the fire spread. From a fire’s point of view, Vaillant writes, fuel is fuel. Houses stop being residences and become accelerants. Firefighters had to learn that in this new type of urban fire, burning homes can turn from “neighborhoods to be saved” into “liabilities to be managed” in the blink of an eye. When water shooting from hoses evaporated before reaching the flames, a new strategy was needed: bulldozing unburnt homes into their basements to manage the flames and create firebreaks. When the fire was finally over, the town looked as though it had been leveled by a nuclear blast.

The last section of the book is aptly titled “Reckoning.” Carbon dioxide and other gases created by combustion don’t magically disappear, the author notes. Instead, they have built up in the atmosphere, raising the earth’s temperature to a point where catastrophic firestorms are becoming the norm.

“We are … witnessing the early stages of a self-perpetuating and self-amplifying feedback loop accompanied by myriad cascade effects,” writes Vaillant. Is there hope? Perhaps, but it will take more than individual actions. Meanwhile, we all need to understand the new reality of fire weather.

Sue Smith-Heavenrich, Candor, New York    

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