Review of John Vaillant: Fire Weather

John Valilant Fire Weather : A True Story from a Hotter World. Toronto : Random House 2023.

John Vaillant’s Fire Weather is one of the few books to attempt to represent the Fort McMurray wild fire of 2016 which destroyed much of the town and its suburbs. It conveys the horror and heartbreak of the fire and losses. Told as anecdotes and analogies the book opens with an overview of the Athabasca Tar Sands bitumen industry, which has underpinned the roller coaster growth of the city. Having done fieldwork in the city the decade prior to the fire, this book was a poignant read.

The strengths of the book are its level of detail and the breadth of the explanatory minutiae. The interviews with first responders are invaluable and translated broader issues and risks into human terms. Allowing people to recount their efforts to save homes and communities and to speak out through this text is important. These details work to allow a reader to insinuate themselves into the professional cultures of workers, residents and emergency personnel. This is important as locals understand working and living in Fort McMurray as a unique experience. “ Fort Mac ” is vilified for the local tar sands industry that contributes a major portion of Canada’s greenhouse gases. Residents who work, mostly in the skilled trades, for the oil companies that dominate the local economy and culture are understandably defensive. But there is an arrogance about how the place relates to the rest of the world that comes across in some of the vignettes.

The culture of the oil sands in particular and Alberta in general is thus an important element in this story. The wild fire burns not only Fort McMurray; it scorches the sense of independence from others and invulnerability that characterizes stereotypes of the province. Incredulity and shock are the first responses by the stunned inhabitants. The fire displaced the myth of mastery of nature. “ The shock was palpable and traumatizing , ” says Valliant :

“ All morning, time had been moving in a peculiar way, but this is the nature of Nature on a deadline: things unfolding gradually across the intersecting horizons of landscape and time until that moment when, with astonishing suddenness, they merge and the event is upon you. You wonder where all the time has gone, when in fact it hasn’t gone anywhere, it is the events within it that have appeared to amplify in speed and scale – because they now include you. This is one of the supreme challenges facing humans in how we manage the physical reality of our planet: the deceptively simple tension between time, rate, and distance. A hurricane can be plotted and tracked a week out, where it remains an abstraction on a network weather map, and yet when it is upon you, time and events achieve a kind of singularity and, suddenly, nothing else exists; its immediacy – its presence- is overwhelming.

“There are literally thousands of cell phone photos and videos from this moment of collective anagnorisis [realization of a reality of which one was in denial, as in “ the penny dropped ”] in Fort McMurray, and they all show the same thing, just from slightly different angles – the post office steps on Hardin, the parking lot of the Showgirls nightclub on Franklin, downtown office windows, drive-through lineups, and back porches in Abasand, Beacon Hill, and Thickwood. It’s a huge and overbearing presence blocking out what, half an hour earlier, had been a picture-perfect Alberta sky. ” (121)

References to such literary terms from Greek Tragedy underscore an argument that runs like a bass-line beneath the stanzas of eye-witness accounts : humans are dependent on fire, our bodies “ burn energy ” Furthermore, modern society is built on the stored form of fire, hydrocarbon deposits. Our way of life, institutions and, according to some sociologists (e.g. Urry), democratic forms are dependent on a high level of “ energetics ” that permit nations to consult, allow citizens to participate and governments to administer at a distance.

Valliant points out that “ If we have a superpower – besides our brains and thumbs and speech – it is fire.  Without its light and explosive, directable energy, we would not be who or what we are” (59). But out of control, it vaporizes its masters. Zooming out from Fort McMurray to major Australian and California, the book makes a strong argument that we are underestimating the megatons of energy released in wildfires by comparing large fires to multiples of atomic bombs. This unfortunate analogy extends the metaphysical sense of the fire as a sort of divine vengeance. The root cause is laid at the food of the hydrocarbon energy industries, their financers and permissive governments whose taxes are enriched by oil, gas and coal extraction and sales. Hydrocarbons have not only supercharged economies, they have done the same for our air with C02 and for global climate heating (or increasing energy levels) in the oceans and atmosphere.

The narrative is untroubled by the strikingly patriarchal quality of the stories and the organizations that respond to the ordeal. They are forced to remake their rules and discard irrelevant procedures and equipment. They resort to the underlying assumptions of paramilitary forms of authority. These also follow racial lines, as the book excludes a discussion of the surrounding Indigenous communities that, if anything were more exposed that Fort McMurray. But, across the many, mainly male voices, that tell the story there is considerable nuance amongst them. This is a second strength of the book : to probe the cultures of emergency responders; to attempt to capture the differences between forest fire fighting and urban residential firefighting that carry over from different equipment to different tempos in their campaigns in response to a fire and to the culture of the organizations. Mobil communications failed and firefighters were isolated and had to withdraw from some neighbourhoods. For example, he interviews Lucas Welsh, a firefighter:

“A kind of spontaneous ontological leap… not by thinking like firefighters, but by thinking like fire…. In burn time.

‘We were losing, said Welsh, so we started making decision based on that number – five minutes per house: You’d say, “How long is it going to take? How many houses do I need to get ahead of it, to give myself twenty minutes to set up and stop it?”… and we changed our tactics.… We would sacrifice four houses to stop the fire from progressing.’ At the fifth house, Welsh and his crew would stop and setup.

The tactic may have been working, but.. these losses, witnessed and also incurred by so many firefighters that day, often felt like personal failures… so these small victories were scattered among greater defeats.” (158)

Municipal planning failed in the face of such a major disaster. In the past, I have called Fort McMurray’s rapid expansion through suburbs of crescents ‘feral.’ These expansions into the boggy boreal forest with only one road in and out proved difficult to escape from and were surrounded by dry woods. The entire city had only one highway in and out, through hours of forest that frequently burn.
As multiple houses burned and waterlines leaked, fire hydrants ran dry. Clad in vinyl siding that imitated clapboard and packed 2m apart and sometimes closer, the “narrow gaps between structures can have a bellows-like effect, sucking air and oxygen at high velocity through the gaps [between buildings], further invigorating the fire…” (157). Yet, to date changes to construction practices that would impact builder’s profits have not occurred and the Province remains in denial about the risks of expanding energy consumption.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)