Wednesday 8 November 2023


 Here is my latest contribution to Literary Review, that uniquely excellent magazine, which, as ever, I urge you to buy and/or subscribe to. Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World was quite a read, telling an astonishing story – that of the Fort McMurray fire – which I had somehow never heard before...

  'Does the name Fort McMurray mean anything to you? I must admit that, until I read this book, I had only a vague idea of the place as a remote mining town somewhere in northern Canada. What I now know is that Fort McMurray is a large, sprawling urban area (not technically a city but it ought to be) in the boreal forest of Alberta, and its mining activities – extracting oil from bitumen – are on such a gigantic scale that they can be seen from six thousand miles up in space, at which height they are the only visible signs of human activity. And this whole vast area was consumed, in May 2016, by a fire the like of which had never been seen before in an urban setting – a wildfire that burned for months, spreading at terrifying speed, creating its own weather, and achieving such destructive force that it could make a house and all its contents vaporise in five minutes, leaving only a hole in the ground and a few scraps. The fire destroyed almost everything in and around the town, burnt more than two thousand square miles of forest, and in the end was the costliest natural disaster in north American history. Miraculously, no one died: nearly ninety thousand people managed to escape by car along traffic-choked roads, with fire raging all around them, smoke reducing visibility to almost nothing, and the air full of blazing embers.
  The full dramatic story of the Fort McMurray fire is vividly told in John Vaillant’s impressive new book (which follows The Tiger and The Golden Spruce). Before he gets down to the events of 2016, he relates the history of the area, back to the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and of the exploitation of bitumen, initially as a raw material, then as a source of oil. To get from bitumen to usable petroleum is no easy matter, demanding complex processing on a massive scale, using colossal, fantastically powerful machinery, for scraping, digging, hauling and crushing – bulldozers that can plough down a forest like mowing a lawn, dump trucks weighing four hundred tons unloaded, crushers that can devour a city bus in three seconds. This is what has created the bleak, devastated wasteland that surrounds Fort McMurray – ‘mile upon mile of black and ransacked earth pocked with stadium-swallowing pits and dead, discoloured lakes’, lakes full of contaminated water and industrial effluent. Even those who work on it compare this landscape to Tolkien’s Mordor, the realm of Sauron.
 Vaillant’s description of the Fort McMurray operation is embedded in a broader consideration of the central role of fire, of combustion, in the modern world, where a single car running at normal speed generates around ten thousand combustions per minute. ‘Observed by visitors from another planet,’ Vaillant writes, ‘humans could easily be mistaken for a global fire cult – the dutiful keepers of a trillion flames.’ And where there is fire, of course, there is risk of destruction, potentially on a terrible scale. This is especially true of what is known to planners as the WUI, the wildland-urban-interface, where town and countryside meet – just the kind of environment people want to live in, and, if that countryside is highly combustible forest, just about the most dangerous. Fort McMurray grew up amid the boreal forest, and boreal forest lives and dies, literally, by periodically catching fire, often on a huge scale. When temperatures are freakishly high and humidity freakishly low, and when a wind is whipping up, the forest is a tinderbox – and so, as Fort McMurray learned, is any town in the vicinity.
 These were just the conditions that prevailed around Fort McMurray when a fast-growing fire was spotted southwest of the town, one that, despite the best efforts of eighty firefighters, two bulldozer groups and several water bombers, proved impossible to contain. This was the beginning of the great fire that the author chronicles day by day, often hour by hour, as it moved in and devoured the town and all that lay around it. Vaillant tells the story through a detailed narrative of events as they unfolded, and through eye-witness testimony, including that of a man who, in impossible conditions, decided to take a stand and save his home. His story, and that of several others, is edge-of-seat stuff, and one is left marvelling not only at the sheer force and scale of the fire but at the courage and endurance of so many – residents and firefighters alike – and the barely believable fact that everyone got out of it alive. I could have done with rather fewer journalistic thumbnail sketches of the dramatis personae – ‘a solidly-built Albertan whose bespectacled eyes peered out from beneath a high, clean-shaven dome’ – but this is a great piece of storytelling, well paced and relentlessly gripping.
 After all this action, the next section of the book, tracing the history of climate science and of attempts to deal with a warming Earth, is quieter, though Vaillant, who sees such events as the Fort McMurray fire as omens of worse to come, infuses it with full-on apocalyptic urgency. A true believer in the ‘settled science’ of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change, he tells a tale of disinterested science nobly overcoming ignorance and obstruction, ignoring the darker alternative story of science hardening into something worryingly like quasi-religious dogma. But never mind – this is a remarkable, often thrilling book, one that would surely give any reader a deeper understanding of the nature of fire, and of its awesome, terrifying power.'

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