Fire Weather by John Vaillant

A nonfiction work that examines the events surrounding the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire.
Book cover.

In May 2016, the city of Fort McMurray in Alberta — the seat of the Canadian oil industry, from which the U.S. derives almost half its oil imports — burned to the ground. The unprecedented disaster forced 88,000 people from their homes and showed us what the fires of the future look like: increasingly destructive, already here.

While the chemistry and physics of wildfires remain unchanged over the last century and a half, climate change has created conditions that give fire exponentially more opportunity to burn. And yet there is no other natural force or element over which we have such a compelling illusion of control. Fire yearns, above all, for freedom, and takes at any opportunity and at any cost. In our unchecked consumption of fossil fuels, it has enabled the same impulses in us.

In masterly prose and cinematic style, John Vaillant weaves together an enthralling, multifaceted story of how Fort McMurray revealed a new normal of fires burning longer and with greater intensity than at any other time this planet has ever known. From the large-scale histories of North American resource extraction and climate science, to the intimate tales of lives scarred by the Fort McMurray disaster, Valliant's urgent work is a book for — and from — our new century of fire. (From Knopf Canada)

John Vaillant is a Vancouver-based freelance writer, novelist and nonfiction author. His first book, The Golden Sprucewhich told the story of a rare tree and the man who cut it down, won the 2005 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction. Vaillant's second title The Tiger, a book about a man-eating tiger that terrorized a village in Russia in 1997, was a national bestseller and was a contender on Canada Reads in 2012, defended by Anne-France Goldwater.

He is also the author of the novel The Jaguar's Childrenwhich tells the story of two friends abandoned in the desert by smugglers who promised to bring them to the U.S.

Vaillant's writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic and other publications.

About the book

On a hot afternoon in May 2016, five miles outside the young petro-city of Fort McMurray, Alberta, a small wildfire flickered and ventilated, rapidly expanding its territory through a mixed forest that hadn't seen fire in decades. This fire, further off than the others, had started out doing what most human-caused wildfires do in their first hours of life: working its way tentatively from the point of ignition through grass, forest duff and dead leaves — a fire's equivalent to baby food.

These fuels, in combination with the weather, would determine what kind of fire this one was going to be: a creeping, ground-level smolder doomed to smother in the heavy dew of a cool and windless spring night, or something bigger, more durable and dynamic — a fire that could turn night into day and day into night, that could, unchecked and all-consuming, bend the world to its will.

It was early in the season for wildfires, but Forestry was on alert and, as soon as smoke was spotted, wildland firefighters were dispatched, supported by a helicopter and water bombers. First responders were shocked by what they saw: by the time a helicopter with a water bucket got over it, the smoke was already black and seething, a sign of unusual intensity. Despite the firefighters' timely intervention, the fire grew from four acres to 150 in two hours. Wildfires usually settle down overnight, as the air cools and the dew falls, but by noon the following day this one had impacted nearly 2,000 acres.

Its rapid growth coincided with a rash of broken temperature records across the North American subarctic that peaked at 90 degrees on May 3rd in a place where temperatures are typically in the 60s. On that day, Tuesday, a smoke-and wind-suppressing inversion lifted, winds whipped up to twenty knots, and a monster leaped across the Athabasca River. 

Within hours, Fort McMurray was overtaken by a regional apocalypse that drove serial firestorms through the city from end to end — for days. Entire neighbourhoods burned to their foundations beneath a towering pyrocumulus cloud typically found over erupting volcanoes. So huge and energetic was this fire-driven weather system that it generated hurricane force winds and lightning that ignited still more fires many miles away. Nearly 100,000 people were forced to flee in what remains the largest, most rapid single-day evacuation in the history of modern fire. All afternoon, cell phones and dash cams captured citizens cursing, praying and weeping as they tried to escape a suddenly annihilating world where fists of heat pounded on the windows, the sky rained fire, and the air came alive in roaring flame. Choices that day were stark and few: there was Now, and there was Never. 

Excerpted from Fire Weather by John Vaillant published by Knopf Canada. Copyright © 2023 John Vaillant. Reprinted courtesy of Knopf Canada. All rights reserved.

Interviews with John Vaillant

Featured VideoShelagh's full length conversation with John Vaillant, author of 'The Tiger.'

Books by John Vaillant

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