Article

Fire weather: John Vaillant’s wildfire wake-up call

March 2024 / 6 min

Key points

  • John Vaillant won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction for his book Fire Weather
  • It’s a terrifying account of the 2016 inferno that engulfed Canada's oil hub at Fort McMurray, Alberta
  • Vaillant warns of the threat of rising temperatures and calls on businesses to think differently
John Vaillant in fire-ravaged Spences Bridge, British Columbia (52–53)

Black forest: John Vaillant in fire-ravaged Spences Bridge, British Columbia. Photography by John Sinal

 

Wayne McGrath crouched on his garage floor and took a couple of swigs of vodka. He phoned his son and said: “I’m in a predicament here, bud. I don’t know if I’m going to get out of this.”

The heat was intense. McGrath’s garage was filling with smoke, and from its window he could see a wildfire tearing through trees and encroaching on his house. Everyone else had long since fled the area. McGrath chose to leave the building and take a stand against the inferno. Armed with sprinklers, a garden hose and a bucketload of adrenaline, he drenched trees and fought fires to protect his house and garage. The latter stored his modified cars, boats, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and prized Harley-Davidson.

McGrath’s tale is one of many that John Vaillant tells in his book Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, which won 2023’s Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. He describes the 45-year-old welder’s rearguard action in Fort McMurray, Alberta, as a “desperate game of whack-a-mole, only with fire and mortal stakes”. The wiry hero and his motorcycle survived the blaze, but it reduced his house and most of his possessions to ashes.

 

Climate change's cost

Vaillant highlights the importance of telling people’s stories on our Zoom chat from his Vancouver home. He says we often overly intellectualise climate change. “It’s one way that we get to grips with things, but it’s also a way of keeping alarming future scenarios at bay,” he explains. “There’s something about these folks’ stories, the way this event came into their day and disrupted and broke it irreparably. I was deeply moved that they cried in front of me, and I cried later reading their interviews.”

A wildfire burns behind abandoned vehicles on the Alberta Highway 63

Hastily abandoned cars on Alberta Highway 63 near Fort McMurray, 7 May 2016. © Bloomberg/Getty Images

There’s a connection between the author and his subjects, which enables Vaillant to tell their stories so well. McGrath comes from a mining town, Vaillant from the wealthy education and technology hub of Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I grew up in an academic family,” he says. “If they did anything with their hands, it was playing an instrument.”

The US-Canadian writer understood what he was missing, so he travelled to a remote part of Alaska to find work. He spent time there with mechanics and fishermen. “I learned how to operate in their world,” Vaillant says. “It helped me to learn and feel an affinity for people like Wayne McGrath.”

The Fort McMurray blaze started on 3 May 2016 and wasn’t fully extinguished until more than a year later. The rough and rich little city is in north-west Canada, 600 miles north of the US border and 600 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Forests of aspen, pine and spruce surround it, and the Athabasca River flows through it. The wider natural landscape resembles Siberia, but the area around Fort McMurray has been rendered hellish by the dirty and difficult business of exploiting the abundant ‘tar sands’.

 

A perfect firestorm

Surprisingly, the perfect conditions for one of the most ferocious fires in human history occurred in a place that many of us think of as cold and wet. Vaillant describes the unusual tinderbox conditions on 3 May: “It was Death Valley dry that day, as hot as Southern California and as dry as Southern California.” Temperatures had reached 33C in the North American Subarctic, where they typically peak about 10 degrees lower at that time of year.

The wildfire takes a leading role in his book, exhibiting a terrifying ability to adapt and turn into a hungry, malignly motivated foe. It created 100-meter-high flames and boulder-sized fireballs that shot between trees, burning at 500C. “Once the embers start flying, the landscape belongs to the fire,” says Vaillant.

The firefighters fought the blaze house-to-house, building firebreak after firebreak. But it kept spreading. About 90,000 people evacuated the city on the first day. Within a week, the fire had destroyed 2,500 structures and nearly 2,300 sq miles of forest, an area almost four times the size of Greater London.

 

Dirty black gold

So, given its remote location, why do people flock to Fort McMurray?

The region is home to the world’s largest deposits of natural bitumen, a tarry form of extra-heavy petroleum that requires much more energy-intensive refining than ordinary crude oil. Canada is the world’s third-largest oil exporter, most of it coming from Fort Mac, as locals know it, and the surrounding area. This has led to a rush of oil companies and migrants moving there to seek their fortune. Another nickname is Fort McMoney. In the year of the fire, the city’s median household income was nearly C$200,000 (£109,000). Little known outside Canada, the oil hub runs deep through the country’s psyche.

John Vaillant in his home. Photography by John Sinal

John Vaillant photographed at his home in Vancouver.

Vaillant wrote the book to highlight what he describes as the “creeping influence of climate change, which makes these fires much more lethal”. Frederick Studemann, literary editor at the Financial Times and chair of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction judges, describes Fire Weather as “an extraordinary and elegantly rendered account of a terrifying climate disaster that engulfed a community and industry, underscoring our toxic relationship with fossil fuels”.

The fire is a harbinger of what’s to come, warns Vaillant. “Look at the last five years of wildfires in the US, Greece, Spain, Australia, Algeria, Syria and even England,” he says. “These are things that are really hard to compute.”

Vaillant sees climate change’s effects across Canada. Mild winters mean you can’t skate on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa any more and the ice roads that connect remote communities in Canada are opening steadily later and closing earlier. On the other side of the country, he describes his home city of Vancouver as the “poster child for climate change because it’s getting hammered, and it’s no longer the paradise it was 15 years ago”. British Columbia is becoming more like Alberta. Winters are warming, summers are drier, and droughts are increasing.

 

Lessons for capitalists

The Vancouverite urges Baillie Gifford and other financial institutions to draw on a fellow Canadian for inspiration. Then governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney warned an audience at a Lloyd’s of London dinner a few months before the blaze in Fort Mac: “The challenges currently posed by climate change pale in significance compared with what might come… Once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.”

“The career capitalist from Alberta understands the tangible risks posed by climate change,” Vaillant comments. But, he adds, the polarised debate on climate change is “totally unhelpful, and it’s manipulative”.

“There are climate-denying knuckleheads in some towns, but they’re not the problem. The media manipulates it, so do very, very canny PR firms, many of which work for banks and petroleum companies to foment misunderstanding, confusion and anger.”

So how do we find a way through this? Vaillant argues it’s “insane to focus on expanding markets and developing resources on planet Earth without considering chemistry and physics. It’s like stepping out of a third-storey window without stairs.” He urges companies and investors to become better at balancing the competing demands of science and profits, and to spend more time engaging with climate scientists.

Radical thinking and action are required to tackle climate change, according to the writer. “We need to look at the data, listen to the climate scientists and focus on a kind of Marshall Plan,” he says, suggesting that wealthier countries help cover the costs of poorer nations. “It’s all hands on deck: we must decarbonise, regenerate forests and stabilise water temperature.”

Vaillant suggests businesses and investors must reframe the narrative and their metrics to account for the hidden costs of environmental impacts, especially warming. “This might mean reducing profits for a time,” according to Vaillant. “That’s the tyranny of the problem. This way, you may increase the chances of being able to go to the beach with your kid and not getting third-degree blisters on your feet from the sand, which is what’s happening in Phoenix, Arizona. You can’t live that way.” On the flip side, changing the narrative also creates an opportunity for genuinely sustainable companies to emerge.

Vaillant claims he’s not a “Marxist, ‘doomer’ or anti-capitalist”. Ultimately, he’s optimistic we will avoid the scenario when global warming ended the Permian Age 250 million years ago, leading to mass extinction.

He says we need to summon the survival instincts of all the generations that have preceded us. “When I’m feeling down in the dumps, I think about them,” admits the author. “They would say: ‘John, we did not come all this way and go through all this so you could give up.’ I feel energised and inspired by this. Our real superpower isn’t our ability to extract hydrocarbons from the Earth in unfathomable quantities and burn them faster than anybody’s burned anything in the history of the world. It’s community. It’s our ability to care for each other and to solve problems collectively.”

Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World is published by Sceptre, Hodder & Stoughton  (hardback: £25).

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