On the fateful day of May 3, 2016, a plume of smoke was spotted near Fort McMurray, the Canadian oil city. It was an early occurrence for fire in the subarctic region, with chunks of ice still floating on the lakes. Despite immediate action from firefighters, the flames spread rapidly, devouring 60 hectares of forest within a mere two hours. By day’s end, the devastating fire had forced 90,000 people to flee their homes, leaving neighborhoods reduced to ash.
According to the gripping account of John Vaillant, the winner of the renowned Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction, Fire Weather, a week later, the city resembled the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Houses were reduced to piles of nails, and even everyday items like a colander and barbecue tools were all that remained in the ruins. The destruction was so severe that not even ceramic toilets had survived the inferno.
Vaillant, who was working on his second novel in Italy at the time, was taken aback by the news spreading through social media. He likened it to hearing that Houston was on fire. Fort McMurray, being the prosperous petroleum hub of Canada, was an unexpected victim of such a catastrophic event. The city found itself enveloped by a firestorm cloud reaching 45,000ft, with the fire piercing through the stratosphere, generating its own lightning and hurricane-force winds.
Incredibly, thanks to the efficient evacuation efforts, there were only two fatalities caused by a car crash during the rush to escape. The survivors, attempting to articulate the horrors they witnessed, turned to mythical references like Tolkien’s fire demon Balrog or the fires caused by an asteroid strike in the film Armageddon. Vaillant believes that these survivors are the prophets of the future, individuals who have experienced something most of us have never seen and hope to never see.
Speaking with Vaillant about his work is akin to being drawn into a nightmarish vision. A silver-haired 61-year-old who settled in Vancouver after moving from Massachusetts 25 years ago, Vaillant began his writing career in his thirties, specializing in exploring the intersection between humanity and the natural world. The Golden Spruce, his 2006 book, recounted the story of an environmental activist who resorted to felling a sacred tree to raise awareness about the dangers of deforestation. In The Tiger, published four years later, Vaillant chronicled a hunt for a man-eating beast in the frozen Russian taiga. While his earlier books focused on finding harmony with nature, Fire Weather delves into the consequences when such harmony is unattainable.
Vaillant, with bright eyes and a sense of urgency, passionately discusses the overarching theme of Fire Weather: the global breakdown of climate conditions that sustain life. He acknowledges that sitting in chilly London, where bushfires appear as distant TV spectacles, it is easy to assume that England is not flammable. However, Vaillant warns against this misconception, stating that we are being rapidly forced to alter our perceptions, creating a significant emotional and intellectual dissonance. Climate change has the upper hand because our attachment to the old world we grew up in blinds us to reality. We built our responses, plans, and infrastructure based on a world that no longer exists.
The lethal cocktail that destroyed Fort McMurray consisted of atmospheric heat, dry forest floors, and an expanding suburbia built on the same petrochemicals that had brought the Alberta city its wealth. Vaillant introduces the term “spalling,” which occurs when concrete’s water content completely evaporates, often at temperatures above 500 degrees. He believes that part of a writer’s duty is to uncover a vocabulary that adequately describes this new reality. Words possess the power to cast spells and shock, even in this jaded age. While the English language already encompasses the necessary terms, they have not been widely used. Now, like firefighters, these words must be called upon and thrust into action. Vaillant highlights another word, “infandous,” which means something too dreadful to be spoken or named. For mayors and fire chiefs responsible for protecting a town, the sight of a fire rampaging through their area is indeed infandous.
The challenge with infandous situations is that they are often too horrific to plan for. This was evident in Fort McMurray and its surrounding forests, where firefighters had to resort to bulldozing gaps through the city’s housing to halt the fire’s advance. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Black Swan, labels this failure of imagination as the Lucretius problem, a reference to the Roman poet and philosopher. Taleb summarized it with the words, “The fool believes the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest he has observed.”
Complicating matters further is the refusal of nations and businesses to divest from oil despite decades of warnings. In 1979, the major oil companies seemed united in their mission to anticipate and prevent adverse manmade climate changes. However, as Vaillant points out, something has shifted within the petroleum industry. Whether it was the invasion of Russia or a realization that their end is approaching, they have become more openly profit-driven and less inclined to waste time on greenwashing. They insist on continuing to burn as long as they can.
Meanwhile, the Carols, Daves, and Robs of Fort McMurray accept this path, with many hailing from impoverished coastal areas.