The fires that now rampage each year through wildlands across North America — and often into the settlements that pepper and adjoin them — aren’t just more extensive and destructive than anything seen in modern times. They’re messing with the calendar as heat and drought push into seasons that were once reliably cooler and more tranquil. And they’re invading our psyches, adding new layers of stress to a threat that keeps millions of souls living in fire country on edge.
Among a spate of recent books on wildfire (see Michael Svoboda’s roundup from July 26), two starkly different titles, both highly readable and lay-friendly, serve as a pair that’s both compelling and complementary.
If these books aren’t exactly beach reading, they’d be ideal for the deck of a forested retreat. And hopefully, that retreat will be surrounded by a ring of tree-cleared defensible space — one of the crucial ways to protect structures from fire in the ever-more-populous wildland-urban interface, where almost half of all new U.S. homes between 1990 and 2010 (and likely beyond) were built.
A close-up on recent fire history
The book to read first is “Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World” (Alfred A. Knopf, released on June 6). It’s an eloquent, comprehensive, and thoroughly referenced look at the catastrophic fire that engulfed large parts of Fort McMurray, Canada, during early May 2016 in what became the nation’s most expensive disaster on record. “Fire Weather” couldn’t be more timely, arriving in a summer when Canada is dealing with its worst fire season in modern records and multiple rounds of thick smoke have invaded the United States.
In the best tradition of literary nonfiction, Canadian writer John Vaillant paints his setting and characters in economical yet vivid detail, making the breakneck arrival of the Fort McMurray fire all the more frightening.
Fort McMurray is a classic one-industry city, carved out of the boreal forest 270 miles north of Edmonton, Alberta, on what’s essentially a dead-end road. The city’s core raison d’être has always been oil — specifically, the world’s biggest single oil deposit, a type called bitumen that’s mixed in with clay, water, and sand. It takes a massive amount of energy to extract the bitumen, making it an especially inefficient and climate-unfriendly fuel.
These bitumen fields weren’t cost-effective to develop en masse until global oil prices spiked in the 1970s. From then on, the boomtown economy hurtled forward, pushing the population of “Fort McMoney” from around 7,000 in 1970 to 61,000 by 2011. The city offered phenomenal blue-collar wages in exchange for grueling spells of work and a devil-may-care culture.
The good times ran right up until May 3, 2016. For several days, fires had been growing just outside of town, stoked by bizarre springtime heat and dryness. Temperatures on May 3 rocketed to 91 degrees Fahrenheit, with strong winds and a relative humidity of 12%. Yet even at midday, officials urged watchful waiting and preparation, and there were no mandatory evacuations in place.
A couple of hours later, as flames raced into Fort McMurray’s western fringes, the entire city was scrambling to leave town in the largest peacetime evacuation in Canadian history. Some 2,400 structures were incinerated; amazingly, there were only two deaths. It took two months to bring the fire under control and more than another year before its smoldering remnants were gone.
Among those described by Vaillant in the literal heat of the moment is Wayne McGrath, a welder from Labrador who swigs vodka while he races to protect his beloved Harley and $100,000 worth of tools in his garage. As McGrath himself put it: “Insanely running around for an hour. Insanely. Like, pure adrenaline.” McGrath’s internal journey after the fire is no less terrifying.
Vaillant covers not only the historic fire in grim detail but also its prolonged aftermath, including the 20,000 refrigerators and freezers that were declared biohazards and the fire-scorched pairs of washers and dryers that “stare back like blank eyes in a roofless skull.”
One of the author’s superpowers is his skill at depicting fire as a living entity. Describing Alberta’s fierce Chisholm fire of 2001, he writes: “A warm southeasterly wind then lifted that flame from its forest bed and, like a generous host with his hand on your back, urged that young fire to dine at will, with infinite appetite, upon the most abundant and explosive carbon buffet on Earth.”
Though centered on the 2016 fire, “Fire Weather” draws powerful connections between broader climate-driven wildfire and the billions of mini-fires that keep the world’s fossil-fuel-burning economy going in power plants, cars, and furnaces.
“One thing is for sure: there has never been a better time to be a fire,” Vaillant writes, before suggesting we re-dub our species Homo flagrans, literally “burning man.” And the awful irony of Fort McMurray falling victim to wildfire isn’t lost: “Combustive energy had drawn people to Fort McMurray in steadily increasing numbers over the course of a century, and combustive energy was driving them out again, en masse, in a single afternoon.”
From this haunting scene, Vaillant zooms back out to explore how scientists both outside and inside the world of fossil fuel came to understand the climate change threat in the 20th century. There was a time in the 1970s and early 1980s, Vaillant writes, when “the oil and gas industry bravely and intelligently examined itself.”
In short, Exxon knew, as did other companies. Then the industry turned on a virtual dime. In 1984, the American Petroleum Institute disbanded its Climate and Energy Task Force, a group of scientists it had convened in 1979 to keep tabs on climate change research. By the 1990s, a decadeslong cottage industry of climate-change cover-up, denial, and dismissal was in high gear, one that continues in some quarters today.
Yet the tides of change are at work too. As analyzed by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and noted by Vaillant, the oil and gas sector represented some 28% of the S&P 500 index’s value in 1980, but less than 5% by 2019.
In the final pages of “Fire Weather,” and throughout the book, Vaillant juxtaposes the natural role and history of fire with the horrific impacts that climate-change-facilitated wildfire is wreaking. Referring both to the majestic sequoia groves of California and a 200-year-old library in Cape Town, South Africa — both ravaged by wildfire in recent years — Vaillant concludes: “The human and natural world, our collective sanctuary and memory palace, has entered a new precarity.”
Adapting to a ‘fiery future’
“This Is Wildfire: How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat” (Bloomsbury, to be released on Aug. 29) provides a road map forward.
Montana-based journalist Nick Mott and business professor Justin Angle bring years of experience covering the topic in Fireline, their podcast with Victor Yvellez, and “This is Wildfire” carries the informal, engaging tone of an audio production.
“A fiery future is guaranteed,” write Mott and Angle. “But the extent to which it damages people and communities is up to us.” Their overarching message: Fire can be our friend if we learn how to respect and leverage it — and over time, we just might be able to successfully fight ever-worsening “bad” fire with more “good” fire.
Much like a good podcast, “This Is Wildfire” gives us quick mini-profiles of characters ranging from fire scientists to firefighters and Indigenous fire experts, whose stories together help humanize the topic. One firefighter, for example, says there’s often greater risk driving to and from a blaze than digging fire lines.
Although it is decidedly future-driven, the book also covers pertinent historical detail. For instance, in the 1850s and 1860s, 7% of all U.S. land area was granted to railroads, which led to the square-mile-based checkerboard of gridded land that can make modern firefighting more difficult.
Yet Mott and Angle bring readers even further back, too — to learn more about a potential way forward: prescribed burns, or cultural burning, a practice cultivated for millenniums by Indigenous peoples across North America to keep fire-reliant landscapes healthy. The suppression of Indigenous cultures with European settlement came with an assumption, ingrained through most of the 20th century, that all wildland fire is bad (think Smokey Bear).
Today, there’s a growing push to raise public awareness about how prescribed burning can greatly diminish the risk of out-of-control wildfires. As one firefighter said to Mott and Angle, “I believe in managing fires … I don’t fight fires.”
Those looking for practical tips on reducing wildfire risk to their homes and communities will find much here as well. One especially helpful checklist arranges a set of fire safety tasks in categories that range from “Low-Hanging Fruit” (e.g., sign up for local evacuation notices) to “After Work” (assemble a go-to bag with key supplies for evacuating) to “On Your Day Off” (clean your gutters) and “Big Projects” (install fire-resistant home components such as a new roof or siding).
Another section offers tips on how neighbors can motivate and assist each other to become more fire-savvy, whether it’s participating in hands-on workshops or simply helping each other prepare their homes and stay alert to rapidly changing conditions. According to Mott and Angle, “The act of fireproofing communities is by necessity bottom-up. Just as each forest is different, every community is different as well. One-size-fits-all approaches alienate almost everyone and are ineffective.”
Though practical in its takeaways, “This Is Wildfire” is also highly personable. The authors show compassion for people grappling with the pain and loss of fire damage, including those suffering from “solastalgia,” the loss of one’s sense of environmental place. As they note, “it’s easy for us to forget one of the natural world’s most important realities — that ecosystems are never static.”
In an era of increasingly dangerous, more mercurial wildfires, Mott and Angle never sugarcoat the realities of climate change. Instead, they keep their focus squarely on adapting to it.
“A sustainable future with fire requires rewiring our relationship with fire, and that requires evolving the ways in which we cope with and think about its impacts too,” they write. “Fire isn’t always bad. It isn’t an enemy we must fight and eradicate. It’s part of our planet.”
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