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Fire Weather | John Vaillant
The Petrocene and the Making of a Beast
Acclaimed author John Vaillant joins me to discuss Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, a masterfully written chronicle of the destructive power of fire in the twenty-first century.
Humanity’s kinship with fire extends across the millennia. The conditions that allow fire to exist, let alone flourish, are the same that allow Homo sapiens to survive and thrive on this planet. Our relationship with this element has been mutually beneficial. Our ancestors use of fire propelled the rapid evolution of human anatomy and cognition. In turn, fire was able to spread, shaping the environments that allow us to co-exist, survive and thrive, forever binding the fates of human and more-than-human life with it.
Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the beginning of what Vaillant calls the Petrocene, the co-adaptive, co-evolutionary path we have carved out with this life-giving/life-destroying element has become discordant and unbalanced. Industrial humans, harnessing the incredible power of ancient fossil fuels over the past few centuries—a mere blink of an eye in Earth’s geological timescale—claimed mastery over this lively entity, and has, in turn, altered the global climate system so dramatically as to trigger a mass extinction event. A relatively small subset of the peculiar species we belong to have, with careless abandon, produced the conditions for fire to claim a larger and more destructive role on the planet. Is it really that we are masters of fire, or instead, is it the other way around?
Fire Weather is an astounding chronicle of the boreal fire that swept through Fort McMurray, Alberta in May 2016. Over the course of 24 hours, the nearly 90,000 residents of this modern-day bitumen subarctic boom town evacuated, escaping the out of control fire as it eviscerated everything in its path. Vaillant zooms in close, guiding us through the decisions made that day as the fire raced into the city, made by residents and authorities alike as catastrophe unfolded. He expands the story to situate Fort Mac as a nexus point in the larger settler colonial history of Canada and its inextricable relationship with the fossil fuel industry and extractive capitalism, all situated within our present paradigm of ecological crisis, climate change, and 21st century fire.
The apocalypse that was visited upon of Fort McMurray is the apocalypse much of the planet is now enveloped in. Fires are larger, hotter, more ferocious and unforgiving. With the ability to generate weather systems capable of self-perpetuating into firestorms beyond most human beings’ ability to readily anticipate and comprehend, the cognitive blindspots of our species become painfully evident. The end of the old world and the induction of the new was visited upon Fort Mac on May 3, 2016. The same can be said of so many other places and communities around the globe, before and since then. The reality is, the Earth is changing into a planet unrecognizable to previous, and even current, generations.
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This interview was recorded on August 8, 2023, and released as episode 350 of Last Born In The Wilderness. The transcript that follows was edited mostly for clarity, and somewhat for length.
Again, thank you so much for doing this. I'm honored to have you here. I read your book, I don't want to say quickly to the point where I didn't absorb it, but certainly, it was a captivating read. There were certain points in Fire Weather where I really did have to stop and really take in what I was really reading.
My first question is: how long did you work on this book?
Oh, it's kind of a sore subject, Patrick.
This is my fourth book, and it took me almost twice as long as every other book. So, it was close to seven years, door to door. And there are a few intervening side issues that influenced that, but also, it was a really difficult book to write, and I think it's a hard and painful book to read.
I don't know if you know those glory holes that glassblowers use, where they stick the glass on the tube into the furnace—it's about the size of your head—and I really felt like I had my face in one of those for a lot of this book. It's just the intensity of what people were going through, of the history and the implications of the opportunities that were frankly squandered, and the situation we find ourselves in now, especially this summer—all of that is hard to stare at, day after day after day. You find yourself being a messenger, but have a really tough file of information. And so, I think that's part of why it took so long.
But there was another reason, Patrick, and that is that, frankly, the story kept changing so rapidly. In 2016, Fort McMurray had a huge and terrible fire. But those huge fires in Australia hadn't ignited yet in 2019-2020. The Tubbs Fire in California, which was a monster—super destructive and lethal—and the Camp Fire, also known as the Paradise Fire, hadn't ignited, and a bunch of others—really, frankly, too many to list. So, the landscape of fire and its intrusions into the built environment have really accelerated, and so I kept having to catch up. And then this notion of also the science has been evolving very quickly just over the past five or ten years. Most of the information I got was from weeklies and monthlies, not from published books because so much of the science was new.
I've never worked on a story where the ground was moving under my feet so rapidly.
I see. I know other journalists and writers that are tackling the subject around climate or the environment and tend to have this experience where the subject isn't sitting still. I felt like while I was reading your book that there were points where you were making notations, or in parentheses, "Also, this happened in 2022."
I'm guessing that you would have to go back to things you may have written a couple of years ago and having to add more context to sort of bring it up to speed as to where we are in 2023.
Patrick, you're exactly right.
In a way, the story of 21st century fire, as I call it, is really a story to be told in a more episodic way, in dailies, weeklies, and monthlies because that's how quickly the chemistry is changing, frankly, and in terms of how it's interacting with the built environment and with forests all over the world. A book is such a monolithic thing. You can't really change it afterward without a lot of trouble.
And so, as I was editing, as you observed, I was continually updating. There are updates in there from 2023, and that's when the book came out. A book does not show up on the shelf just like that—there's publishing, packaging, and marketing. There's a huge lead time on a major hardcover, and so, the fact that I got stuff in there even from 2023 is kind of miraculous.
But it just goes to show that what I feel like I captured and what I have to contribute to this moment that we're in is a really critical five years. From 2016 to 2022, so much changed on the landscape. So much changed in insurance, politics, business, and banking. Climate and its impacts have just become much more front and center and are being forced into the way people negotiate with the world, even in areas like stockbroking and pension funds, which have generally kept their distance from climate and environmental issues.
It's just the power, speed, and intensity of these changes is forcing its way into every corner of our lives now.
Yes. Of course, in the book you're weaving in so many different elements, masterfully. I have to say, as someone who's now situated in Canada, that when I started reading it, it was interesting timing to pick up the book.
I feel like you're trying to communicate to a US American audience what Canada is, in some ways. You're going over the colonial history of the nation before it even became a nation and some of the economic forces that have really shaped the land over the past couple hundred years, and finally, coming to the point of describing where Fort McMurray fits in that context.
Could you place this city in the context of not only where it fits in Canada's relationship with the fossil fuel industry, but also where it sits in relation to the boreal forest and its ecological relationship with fire?
Yes, for sure.
There's a lot of front loading in there because I think for many Americans, Canada is really a cipher. It's this huge place somewhere up north, but it's really not a big part of American life. And, frankly, a lot of the information I was going over many Canadians don't know, partly because so many Canadians are new Canadians. I'm an immigrant there myself, and there's just a lot that I don't know about, kind of schoolbook Canadian history. So, it's a refresher for me, too.
Fort McMurray is really an anomaly in North America. It's now the fourth-largest city in the Subarctic after Edmonton, Alberta, Anchorage, Alaska, and Fairbanks, Alaska. Then you get Fort McMurray, which is a place a lot of people outside the petroleum industry have never heard of. If you're from Houston, you've certainly heard of Fort McMurray—there's a lot of cross pollination there because Fort McMurray is, first and foremost, a petroleum town. It started out as a fur trading post, as so many remote settlements in Canada did, but it evolved into a really unusual petroleum boom town. And what's unusual about it, besides the fact that it's 600 miles north of the US border and 1,000 miles from any tidewater port that you could export petroleum from, is the fact that what they're mining—not drilling—is not, technically speaking, oil. It's really bitumen. It's tar. It's what you'd seal your driveway with.
Fort McMurray, with a population of permanent and transient residents of close to 90,000 people, sits in the middle of the boreal forest, which is the biggest terrestrial forest system, bigger than the Amazon. It goes all the way around the Northern Hemisphere, across Alaska, through Russia, where it's called the Taiga—when you think about Siberian forest, that's part of the same boreal forest system. It goes all the way across Northern Europe, through Scandinavia, hops over the Atlantic, touches down on Iceland briefly, then Newfoundland, and then into the Canadian mainland and all the way around. So, it's a huge, huge system. And one of its most notable features is, unlike the rainforests that we think about and even the temperate forests that people might live in New England, Oregon, or Washington state, is that it's fire-dependent.
Fires are a normal part of life there, in the sense that there are coniferous trees up there, spruce and pine trees also, whose cones will not open unless they're heated to temperatures greater than sunshine can achieve on its own. They have to get fire hot for the cones to open for the seeds to release. What that tells the seeds is, I've been released from the cone—that means the ground has been cleared and that the canopy has been opened for me, so it's my time. And so, what it means, though, is that in this vast forest systems, you don't find 300-year-old trees, or 500 or 1,000-year-old trees like you might find in the Sequoia forest or even in eastern hardwood forests. Most of these trees burn within 50 to 150 years. And when those trees burn, they burn on a colossal scale.
This is another thing that's just hard to wrap your head around if you're not from Canada is how huge the boreal forest is. You have just hundreds and hundreds of miles where there might just be a very small First Nations or Native settlement, but no cities, towns, and roads. You can have a 1,000 square mile fire, and it's really not a big deal and doesn't make the news. People don't even try to put it out because it doesn't impact anything. Big, long-lasting, hot burning fires are the norm up there.
But what happened in Fort McMurray, this big petroleum city that grew up really over the past couple of decades, with 90,000 people living and working there, with one road in and out, you have this wildfire that is normal for that forest system, but it blew right into the city. These fires are enormous, with 150 to 300-foot flames. The fire front can be many miles wide. So, it's really like a tsunami of fire sweeping in. They're wind-driven, so you can't redirect them. And when you get high winds as they did on May 3, 2016, you can plow a fire line with a bulldozer and drop retardant from a plane, but the embers are still going to fly over the top of that. And again, with climate change and this sort of super heating that's been taking place across the globe, but most notably, in the upper latitudes like northern Canada, you have these extremes of heat. So, where the average temperature for early May in Fort McMurray in the northern boreal might be 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit, it was over 90 degrees. You've got Southern California temperatures, and then you have relative humidity, which is the other kind of igniter or accelerant for wildfire. High humidity, obviously rain or damp weather, really depresses fire energy, but when you have low humidity, like around 11%, which is what it was on May 3, 2016, and that's the same relative humidity as Death Valley.
So, you've got now Southern California dryness and temperatures in a northern forest system that burns like crazy anyway, and now you've goosed it with 30 degrees above normal Fahrenheit temperature, and 20% lower than average relative humidity. Now what you have, instead of an intense fire situation, is an absolutely explosive, almost bomb-like, fire situation.
And so, when those embers started landing on people's lawns and gardens, they didn't just fizzle out, they would burst into flame. Because it was so hot and dry, it was as if people's lawns and gardens had been sprayed with gasoline—that's how the fires took off. And then on top of that—there are a number of different moving parts to this fire—was the radiant heat coming off the fire. That's the heat that makes you not stick your finger in the candle and pushes your hand away. Radiant heat moves at the speed of light.
Now you have this fire front that's five or ten miles wide with 150 foot flames and the radiant heat coming off it is about 900 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the planet Venus. So, even before the fire gets to the trees and to the houses, those houses are already now 900 degrees. When the fire hits them, they don't just catch on fire, they literally explode into flame, and that explains why houses—these two-storey, half-million dollar state-of-the-art modern houses—burnt to the basement in five minutes.
No firefighters had never seen anything like this. Not even the wildfire fighters had seen these typically damp Aspen and Poplar explode into flame. Usually, they will slow a wildfire down. And in this case, because they were so hot and so dry, they just lit up like torches.
But in terms of why Fort McMurray matters to the United States, as remote as it is, and even though they're mining bitumen there and not drilling for oil, they're turning that bitumen through enormous effort and application of natural gas into a feedstock for the American petroleum industry. Fort McMurray is now the biggest source of foreign oil and oil feedstock imports into the United States, even more than Saudi Arabia. Canada is now the leader is far as foreign imports into the States, and 90% of that petroleum originates in Fort McMurray.
So, that's why Fort McMurray matters to the American economy and American energy.
There were several elements you were describing as to why homes are more flammable now, one being because of the petrochemicals that make them up. You describe the difference between modern furniture and appliances versus legacy furniture. Things are made a little differently now. And all these things combined, it was like the perfect storm. With the amount of carbon that's in the atmosphere due to industrial fossil fuel use over the past 150 years or more, it leads more to crossover, where the temperature and the humidity come to a point where it becomes much more flammable.
You're describing all the conditions that are set for a city in the Subarctic to just burst into flames within hours. The severity of conditions—people describe it as being a one-off event. But as we were talking about before, we're in 2023, and this type of thing seems to be occurring on this scale in many different forms all around the world.
Could you talk about the role that climate disruption is playing in setting many of these conditions?
Yes, for sure, Patrick.
I think there was a temptation to look at Fort McMurray as a one-off. It was such a freakish event. It was the largest, most rapid evacuation due to fire in modern times. It was in such a remote place, the conditions were so extreme, and I think it would be easy for somebody just looking at that event to say, Well, that's all so weird—it's such an anomaly. But then, if you stop and just back up a couple of years to 2011, a four-hour drive south of Fort McMurray is the little town of Slave Lake. It was burned over by fire in the same way—same time of year, exact same conditions. 500 houses burned, the radio station burned, the library burned, the town hall burned. 15,000 people were evacuated. The impact on the petroleum industry down there affected the province of Alberta GDP at the end of the year. It was a really destructive fire, and people thought that was a one-off, too.
Okay, so now we've got Slave Lake in 2011 and Fort McMurray in 2016. And that's just in Canada. Well, let's take a look at the Tubbs Fire in 2017 in California, and then these incredible fires that burned through Northern California, Oregon, and up into Washington in 2019 and 2020. Epic fires. And what started showing up—and this is another indicator of what I'm calling 21st century fire—is not only do you have these ultra-low relative humidities and excessively high temperatures that seem to be going together and accelerating already flammable conditions, but you have these fire cloud systems called pyrocumulonimbus clouds, which were really, again, an anomaly and a curiosity as recently as the 1990s. Most commonly, you would see these giant whirling fire cloud systems that actually would reach up into the stratosphere, 30-45,000 feet up above the surface of the earth, so dynamic that they produce their own lightning and hail. And with that lightning, they can actually start their own fires, almost like a perpetual motion machine of fire moving across the landscape.
Prior to the late '90s, these PyroCbs, as they're called, were generally seen only over volcanoes, the only explosive energy on Earth capable of generating a firestorm system like this. Now, they become an increasingly common feature not just of boreal fires or of California and Oregon fires, but even fires in Europe, and they've never been seen there before. And just to give you a sense of how far we've come in a very short time, Canada's 2023 fire season not only is the worst in the history of the country, it's only half over. So we got a long way to go yet. And we've already, in Canada alone, generated over a hundred pyrocumulonimbus firestorms. These are huge things that you can see from satellites in space, and they change the world around them. The idea of one hundred of them occurring in half a summer in one country is unheard of on planet Earth. So, we're really in new territory.
Back in 2016, as recent as it seems to us, it was clear to me then when I started looking at it and started talking to fire scientists that Fort McMurray was not the first one and Slave Lake wasn't either. There was another one before that most Canadians and Americans never heard of called the Chisholm Fire that broke out in 2001 that was the hottest, fastest moving wildfire ever recorded. It produced more energy, per square meter—which is how they measure fire energy along the leading edge of the fire—than any other fire ever measured on Earth anywhere. Hotter than Australia, hotter than Southern California. So, it was a monster, and you talk to fire scientists and firefighters about it, and it has a kind of legendary status.
And so, the writing was on the wall if you were looking at the right wall. Fire scientists and climate scientists have been talking about this and, frankly, warning us of this for decades, really since the 1970s. They've seen this coming. And now it's really manifesting in ways that ordinary civilians like you and me can witness firsthand in some really terrifying ways.
There's an aspect of this that feels like we have crossed a threshold on the planet. You're describing fire weather, these conditions that when fires get large and hot enough, they produce their own weather—this sort of self-reinforcing thing.
I wanted to actually bring this in: I was reading an article right before this interview started from The Guardian. Very briefly, it states:
"Huge wildfires in Canada have already spewed out twice the smoke emissions than the previous whole-year record, the EU’s climate monitor said on Thursday, with the blazes expected to continue to scorch their way through forests for weeks or even months. The devastating wildfires have burned some 30m acres (12m hectares) this year so far, incinerating an area larger than the size of Cuba or South Korea."
The point that it's really making—and I think fits into what you wrote in your book about carbon emissions that we are producing from industrial activity—is we've crossed a threshold where the planet itself is producing the conditions for certain events like fires to also produce carbon and release methane and other greenhouse gases. That seems to be part of the trend as well.
Yes. It's called a feedback loop, or a tipping point.
The world's climate is enormously complicated and very variable. But what we've done over the past 150 years by burning fossil fuels—everything from coal to oil and gas and methane and even bitumen, processing all of that together, performed relentlessly by very capable and energetic human beings—has created enough CO2 and methane in the atmosphere to actually change the way the system works. So, our lower atmosphere is now retaining measurably more heat than it used to, and when you heat anything up, it's going to dry things out.
Climate science is complicated, but it ain't rocket science. When you hang your wet clothes out on the line on a cloudy, cool day, they'll stay damp, maybe for days. You put them out on a hot, dry, windy day, and they're going to dry in half an hour. The forest floor is no different from that. And so when you have higher temperatures, and especially fair weather, like we've been having all summer up north, things will dry out not just your laundry, not just your local creek, but the forest floor and the trees themselves, to the point that if you walk through a lot of Canadian forest now they crackle underfoot—you can just feel how dry it is. The leaves are crunching like late fall before the rains come.
And so, already we're in this really dry tinderbox type situation. That's what enhanced—if you want to call it that—CO2 in the atmosphere enables. It makes that more common, and it makes those higher temperatures easier to achieve. And if you think about it, fire can't burn through wet fuel; it needs it to be dry, and it likes it to be hot. If it's already been dried out and already hotter than normal, that's just less work that the combustion has to do to get the fuel up to temperature doing what it wants to do, which is to combust to make fire, which dries out more fuel, which makes more fire.
But basically, one way to understand this and understand, I think, the human connection to this, is the reason we're interested in fossil fuels—whether it was coal, or a piece of wood in a hearth from 10,000 years ago, or whatever is in your lighter—is because it burns. We're really into fire as a species, and it's been our companion forever—longer than dogs. We've had a fire in our hearth, fire in our world, lighting up the darkness.
It's kind of a magical thing to do. If you think about being a Stone Age person and night falls, it's dark and there are a lot of big hungry creatures out there, but if you can illuminate the darkness with a fire that you control, all of a sudden, you're setting the rules of the game in your favor in a way that they weren't before. And so, by mastering liquid fuel, as we have done by creating combustion engines and having piped in gas into our homes, again, we've taken this next leap into energy and fire that has given us enormous power and wealth. We don't even think about it because we—you and me and people much older than us—have grown up in the middle of this experiment, really, with liquid fuel.
The point I'm making is, at its root, it's fire. And so, when you burn fire, you make CO2, a natural byproduct—you're going to have smoke, carbon emissions, and CO2. You can call it energy, or oil and gas, but at its essence, it's fire. When you burn as much fire as we have, you will produce measurable amounts of CO2. So in a way, it's not surprising that this CO2 has, in turn, made the earth more conducive to combustion. It's like, you folks wanted fire, and now we've turned the world into a more flammable place; it's easier to make fire, and it's not always fires that we want to have. That's what is alarming and feels almost like a betrayal, but it's really this disconnection that humans, and the industry and its lobbyists, proponents, and advocates have also enabled between the power that fire gives us, which is fantastic.
I just took a really beautiful car ride today down to this beach on the Oregon coast, and I couldn't have done it without—unless I had an electric car, which I don't have at the moment—traveling in a petroleum-powered vehicle to get down there. But at the same time, what’s easy not to factor in because it's invisible and comes out the tailpipe where I can't see it, is the CO2. And yet, there are billions of people like me motoring around right now, and it accumulates.
So, its goes back to the inconvenient truth. It's that what do you do with the waste and CO2 is a now its own industry. If you think about it, if you have a fossil fuel industry, a fire industry, an energy industry, it means almost by default that you have a CO2 industry. So, we're really good at producing CO2. And we produce so much now that we really altered our climate in ways that are impacting us directly every day, in some ways more visible than others, but everywhere, with very few exceptions, is warmer than it has been, and thus evaporating more and more conducive to fire.
Since you're discussing this part of it, I was thinking about an interview I did in 2019 with Stephen Pyne, an excellent and prolific environmental historian who writes a lot about fire. And in that interview with him, I think what was really the takeaway that stuck with me through these years is that as human beings, we co-evolved with fire; the conditions that allow fire to exist are also the conditions that allow us to exist on this planet. That with our sort of "mastery" of fire, we wouldn't be human—we would not be the Homo sapiens that we are today.
And this brings in the question for me, and in some ways you hinted at it or more or less answered it in some way or the other: we think of ourselves as masters of fire in the same way that we're masters of all these technological innovations and the infrastructure that we operate and move through every day. But, are we really the masters of fire, especially in the fire you write about in minute and captivating detail that took over Fort McMurray?
It's a really crucial question.
Stephen Pyne is someone that anybody writing about fire goes through and encounters on their way to a better understanding of this energy and its relationship to us. One way I describe it is as a prosthetic energy—it's not a tool exactly, but we use it like a tool to amplify our power, to multiply our energy, to multiply our wealth. And so, even though we don't see it, its energy is there with us. I'm sitting in a plastic chair right now that would not be here without fire energy. I'm talking to you on this machine, and likewise, it wouldn't be here without fire energy. It's so deeply integrated—along with the petroleum industry and petroleum products—into our daily lives that we scarcely notice it. It's like, I don't notice my fingers unless I wave them in front of my face, but I'm using them all the time, and I think that's how deeply fire and its energy has been integrated into how we live.
And so this question of, have we mastered it? It does appear that way, but then if you take a broader view of planet Earth, we actually have a kinship to fire that is quite interesting, in that the only reason we're able to exist is the same reason fire can exist: because of oxygen. That's something that unites fire and Homo sapiens, and really all living creatures on the surface of the Earth, is that we burn oxygen, we just burn it at different rates. We also produce waste gases; human beings produce CO2, and methane also.
We also generate heat. We don't think about it, but we're all walking around at almost 100 degrees. The idea of a 100-degree day is daunting and newsworthy, but our own bodies are practically 100 degrees, and we don't even think about it. You have to burn a lot of energy to be almost 100 degrees on a 60 or 70 degree day, like I'm sitting in right now.
So, this question of who's in charge of this energy is a really interesting one. Michael Pollan, a really wonderful journalist, and another kind of cultural historian, wrote a book called The Botany of Desire that really shaped my thinking about fire. It's a wonderful book that came out in 2001. He looks at four plants: apples, potatoes, tulips, and marijuana, and their very humble origins. They were practically weeds, just growing in remote corners of the world until people discovered that they had qualities that human beings liked. We liked them well enough to breed and help develop their power, whether it's a beautiful tulip, a really potent strain of marijuana, or a big, juicy apple, and then started propagating them around the world by selling and planting them. These are now global crops, but they started out locally.
So the question is, who's in charge? Is the potato, the apple, the marijuana, or the tulip using us to propagate around the world? Because without humans, they would still be in their little corner of the planet. You can ask the same question of fire. I call that—and this is totally riffing on Michael Pollan—a domestication of desire. But who's getting domesticated? We think we've domesticated fire, but fire may be using us as these kinds of zombie hosts to spread its energy and the CO2 necessary for its more rapid combustion around the world.
And so, looking at it that way, we are the tools of fire. Who's going to be victorious in the end? Right now, there are parts of the planet—I've heard that Tehran, and some other cities in Iran, have actually just had to shut down because it was simply too hot to function. Phoenix, Arizona has been having these terrible temperatures where people have fallen on the sidewalk and gotten third-degree burns off the sidewalk, and even from hose water that's been sitting in the garden in the hose. So, that's not a planet that is friendly to human beings, but it's very friendly to fire.
And so that raises, I think, a really serious question of, are we serving fire, or is fire serving us? And that's an open question right now.
To build on this, the other question is—and you ask this question directly in the book—is fire alive?
Now, one could sit here and look at a flame from a lit candle or fire in your fireplace and say, Well, that's not alive. But, there are numerous points in the book when you're describing fire, and it's actually a character. You're writing about the individuals who are escaping the fire and are fighting the fire in Fort Mac, and the fire itself is almost as much an agent of making choices and of choosing what it is targeting and consuming.
I just want to bring this in, and it's just really a standout story because of how dramatic it is, and that’s of Wayne McGrath. So, in asking this question if fire is alive, I would ask if you could describe his story of how he tried to fight the fire to protect his property, and how there was this point in this fight he was having, by himself, with this huge fire destroying his neighborhood, where the fire itself seems to have made this choice. It's very eerie and disturbing in a certain kind of way because there's like an intelligence there. But it isn't quite—it's not biological in the way that we understand life to be.
It's a provocative question, and it's kind of an unscientific question. No physicist or chemist would go where I went, but that's the joy, really, of being a journalist. I can explore ideas that someone in a tighter discipline wouldn't be able to.
We need to determine right off the top that fire is not sentient; it does not have a brain and intentions, but it behaves in ways that look as if it does. Going back to the candle or fire in the fireplace—fire is not alive, but it's undeniably lively, and we like its company. It's really nice to have a candle burning at the table. It just creates this atmosphere—it's not just warmth: it's light, it's energy. It's so many of the things that we associate with life. And then you think of the fire in the fireplace: we spend time feeding it, tending it, nurturing it. It's like a little baby, almost, that we take care of, and it gives us this beautiful happy glow. So much of our language is tied up in light, fire, and warmth. So many of the things that fire gives us are what makes our lives meaningful. Fire has an appetite; it needs to be fed, and it will do whatever it can do to feed itself more, to get as big as it can be in that sense. It has ambition and behaves in an ambitious way.
And so, this fire coming into out of the forest and into the neighborhood of Abasand, where Wayne McGrath lived, was looking for fuel. It was responding to the heat, to the off-gassing tar shingles, vinyl siding, and glues and resins in the plywood. It was heating up the propane tanks in the various grills in the neighborhood and exploding them. It was burning all the tires. All of this was fantastic fuel and energy for the fire. It's like letting a kid loose in an ice cream store; it's just going to eat as much of it as it can and of whatever it can.
And so, for Wayne McGrath, unlike anybody else in his neighborhood, he decided to stay and fight the fire. Everybody else evacuated. When this fire was coming in, it was so huge and so frightening. The embers were igniting so rapidly on people's lawns that they grabbed their kids and pets and booked it out of there post-haste. Wayne is a welder, and very familiar with fire. He had a hobby shop in his garage, full of snowmobiles and ATVs. He had a muscle car, a big pickup truck, a jet boat, and all these welding tools and tanks full of explosive gases. And so, this was a world he was comfortable in, and a world that was also valuable enough to him that he was going to fight to protect it.
He hosed down all the surrounding trees. Everything around him was on fire, and so, he became a kind of island in the middle of the fire. There was a prevailing wind drawing the fire northward through the neighborhood. The fire went around him because he protected his place so aggressively—and, for some time, so successfully—it kept moving northward through the neighborhood. And he said—he's describing this to me—the fire got about six houses down from him, and he thought, I've done it, I did it. And then he said, The fire crossed. And I said, What do you mean? And he said, It crossed the street, and it came back up the street toward me.
And so, there's the prevailing wind, and if you were in a plane looking at which way the smoke was going, it's all going north, but there were these vortices—I think that's how a physicist would explain it—but there was also this unburned fuel. And when you think of Wayne McGrath's garage full of acetylene tanks, snow and summer tires, and gas tanks—everything a motorhead could desire. There's a similarity between people who love machines and engines—they like the fire energy, but so does the fire. So, it's almost like the fire behaved as if, I don't want to miss that, that's going to be a feast back there. And so, the fire basically progressed back up the street against the prevailing wind, and burnt his place down. He barely escaped with his life.
It just was such a surreal situation, because you're really rooting for the guy, and you think, Oh, my gosh, he's beat the odds, he did this impossible thing. And yet, the fire had these other intentions. And again, you can't call them intentions in terms of sentience. It's not an intellectual decision, but it makes you think about how much we are driven, motivated, and enabled by physics and chemistry. And that's what enabled that fire to make basically a U-turn on Abasand Drive and go the wrong way up the street, and burn everything. It left nothing out.
It's just an amazing anecdote, and it really makes you wonder.
It has mythological or legendary dimensions to it. The subtitle of the book is The Making of a Beast, and they started calling it that, a "beast", because of just how relentless it was. It's like an invader.
You describe the story of Grendel from Beowulf, the monster that enters, is not wanted, and takes what it wants and leaves. It's hard for me to wrap my head around what is essentially a chemical process of fire, making that U-turn you describe. I can get my head around other stuff like describing things that no one had ever seen before at that point, like houses literally bursting into flames instantaneously and disappearing within five minutes. That's crazy, but it seems plausible, with all the conditions that were set. To try to imagine a fire taking a U-turn just implies—I know there's this term anthropomorphizing, and that people don't want to do that. But, it's almost like an uncanny valley of feeling of, this thing is not alive, but it is. And when it's on that scale, it is horrifying, and does take on the characteristics of a mythological beast.
We live on planet Earth, and why we live—that verb—why we're able to articulate that and have this conversation now is because of oxygen, chemistry, and physics.
Fire is really different from us, but it's beholden to a lot of the same laws, which means it has a lot of the same powers that we do. The Greek word anima, as in animal, as in animated, refers to the breath of life. And so, when you think about a fire, you think about what drives it. What's the breath of life in a fire? It's oxygen, of course. It's the same breath of life that we breathe. It animates us and animates fire, and fire is really animated. That's part of what's so mesmerizing about watching it in a fireplace or even in a candle. It's always moving. And when it's presented with that much fuel and available energy under those incredibly combustive conditions, it's going to get really dynamic. The same way in a hurricane there can be tornadoes. Inside hurricanes, there are so many complex dynamics happening, that when you have a fire system that big, likewise, you can have very bizarre behaviors that fire scientists and physicists are beginning to understand. Mike Flanagan, for example, a really excellent fire scientist, could probably explain the type of vortex that would enable a fire to turn on itself and go back up the street. But, it's following the fuel. It's following air currents, and a bunch of different things.
But when you look at, especially in the case of Fort McMurray, which was so unusual, the way the fire went through town and then came back from the other direction the next day, it's like, I didn't finish the job, there's some more I want there. So, what we saw happen in microcosm on Wayne McGrath's Street, happened on a citywide scale over many days. That's another amazing feature of 21st century fire, and what we saw in its full and terrible glory in Fort McMurray, is it didn't just burn through in a day. Most fires are following the wind. They race through in one direction, and then they're gone. They go off into the forest, or they go out—they hit a lake or an ocean, whatever it is. This fire went through, and then came back day after day, and that's another reason why it was called "The Beast"—the fire first came into town on the 3rd, and didn't get named "The Beast" until the 5th. That's 48 hours of relentless firefighting from every direction on the compass. And it starts to feel like, this thing is out to get us, and it's an apt description.
It's not a beast in the sense of Godzilla or Grendel—it's not three-dimensional—but it's having an absolutely three-dimensional impact on the city in terms of destroying property, wholesale.
And so, again, fire occupies this kind of interesting niche of being almost alive, but not quite. I really wanted to explore that intensely because I think fire is something that behooves us to understand better, to have a more nuanced concept of, as we go into the 21st century. We will be seeing a lot more of it, and we should know what we're seeing.
I have a really one final major point I want to get to. The final point which really spoke to me that was made in the book is the Lucretius Problem.
The first time I actually came across Fire Weather, it was an interview that you did in New York Magazine about the wildfire smoke that was drifting into New York City with the apocalyptic images of this haze, an orange, yellow, glowing kind of smoke that was infiltrating every corner of that city. You were talking about the cognitive barriers on a mass society scale that make us unable or unwilling to really look at potential threats.
On the level of Fort McMurray, what happened there is something that I think we all can kind of empathize and relate with. This fire was at their door, and people were acting as if the routines of day to day life overrode what was just about to happen and was inevitable. This is happening on a global scale. We have fires happening all over. There's wildfire smoke that is drifting into cities that have never experienced this, or haven't for a very long time. We're at this threshold, and what we're cognitively blocking is breaking through.
So, in describing the efforts to fight and evacuate from this fire in Fort Mac, as well as just on the macro view of how we're dealing with it now, could you talk about the Lucretius Problem?
Yes. So, Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived in the first century BC. He made the observation that people have kind of an intellectual tic or characteristic. Of human beings that he encountered, they had a tendency, for example, to think the biggest mountain that they believed existed was the biggest mountain they had personally seen. They based a lot of their feelings about the world and their responses to it, and their preparations for it, on their own firsthand experience. It's a limitation, in a way. It doesn't matter too much in terms of a mountain unless your idea of a big mountain is the Appalachian Mountains. And so, you prepare for a hike in the Appalachian Mountains, and then somebody puts you into the Rockies or the Himalayas, and you're going to be totally overwhelmed by that.
What it translates to, I think, in terms of our behavior, is an allegiance to the status quo. It's an allegiance to what we know and what we're used to. And so, in the case of boreal fire, boreal fires have been around for as long as people have been around in Alberta, and people have been processing petroleum up there for close to 100 years now. They're used to these fires, but they're not used to 21st century versions of these fires. When they saw that fire on the horizon, even though they jumped on it on May 1, they could not put it out with water bombers or hotshot crews. They could not put it out. This thing was out of control from day one. They had a prediction of very accurate forecasts that the wind was going to blow toward town, so this fire was coming. And yes, because they had this multibillion-dollar industry that they had to serve the bitumen industry, and had 90,000 people in the city, the idea of evacuating everyone was daunting and seemed literally impossible if anything big enough could happen to make that come to pass.
And so, the Lucretius Problem manifested in the sense that they approached this fire as if it was a boreal fire of the kind that they were used to: big, hot, smoky, and all that. "We have the technology to keep them out of town," and that's what they had done for the past 50 years successfully. They approached it the same way, and yet, they had new information: they were told the relative humidity would be Death Valley dry; they were told that the temperature would be close to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above the average; they knew that no one had been able to stop this fire in the past two days.
They still treated it as if they could stop it, and they failed really badly. People still fought it; the firefighters were heroic and didn't do anything wrong. It was the people who were in charge of directing operations who really underestimated what this fire was capable of, and that is a hallmark of the human response to climate change. Whether it's a blizzard, like that blizzard in Buffalo, New York that killed 50 people just a few months ago, or Hurricane Ian, continually people underestimate the power of these things and continually base their responses on experiences they've had before. And climate change, if it has any defining feature, it's the capacity to introduce us to things we've never seen before. And that's what we're going to be seeing for the rest of the 21st century, a whole bunch of things. It could be a flood, rain, a tornado in a weird spot like downtown Milan, Italy just last week; we're going to be seeing things where we've never seen them before, at an intensity that we've never seen before.
The Lucretius Problem is a real built in glitch that gives climate change an advantage over human beings. We hold so dearly to the life that we currently live that we will ignore a lot of the warning signs until the absolute last minute. And so, these people in Fort McMurray, whose kids were in school, who were going to work, who were locking their door on their way as they evacuated even though the fire was three doors down, thinking their house might not burn—these people are not dumb. They're not in denial. They're encountering something that is outside their experience that's too big for them to assimilate.
And this, again, is the Lucretius Problem. It takes a real intellectual and psychological effort to say, I haven't seen this before, but I believe that it can happen. I believe it can be as bad as this climate scientist and the meteorologist say it can be. And yet, you see those two categories of weather analysts being vilified by people and even threatened for telling the truth and describing a world that they're not familiar with, but it's coming. And so, it puts us in a really awkward situation.
One of the reasons I was so fascinated and horrified by Fort McMurray is that three-day period from May 1 when the fire broke out five miles outside of town, to when it entered the city, is the human response to climate change in microcosm. And so, you take that three days and expand it into 50 years, we've had the warnings for half a century. We've had vivid descriptions of what's going to happen: the polar ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise, storms will get worse, fires will burn hotter. They've been telling us that since probably before you were born, Patrick. And now it's actually happened, and we're kind of caught on the back foot. We aren't ready for it, even though we've been told about it.
And so that's where I feel like the Lucretius Problem is a real liability for Homo sapiens. It doesn't matter what your politics are, or how well-educated you are. It's just a limitation in many of our brains: the way we process threats and knowledge, and so we have to account for that. We have to almost overcompensate for that.
Your book on one level feels like something akin to what a Cassandra would do, which is to tell the future but not be listened to. But I do think we're at a point where something like your work can really, truly breakthrough in the way that fire can break through these blocks we have. You have to confront this, and we're seeing this happen in multiple ways. So, your book is timely in a vital way that is maybe tragic, but also not because it's such a provocative and masterfully written book.
You end the book on something of an optimistic or hopeful note, with the idea that life goes on. You were walking through the remains of a town that had burned, and there were flowers that were growing. So, there's this sense that regardless of what happens and what this new Earth is that we're entering into, there's always going to be life that comes through, it just may not include us, or at least us in our current form.
We're living in a transitional moment. Nature is telling us that every day, and is signaling loudly to us that it's too hot—we've made it too hot. Nature is struggling with these new temperatures, and so are human beings.
And what is amazing, though, and hopeful to me about planet Earth, and Homo sapiens, is planet Earth is the only place that we know of in the universe whose default impulse is to facilitate growth. It's normal to flourish here. It's not an exception. It's normal for things to grow and reproduce, multiply and regenerate. That's what planet Earth is about, and we're part of that process.
What we have shown through history is that we are capable. Even if we don't do it all the time, we are capable of being excellent stewards of the land and closely tied to it, really paying attention to it and finely tuned to its rhythms, capabilities, and needs. That's what's enabled us to reproduce with such success. It's really our entanglement with and our relatively new allegiance to fossil fuels that have tipped the scales toward fire, that if we were able to energize and power ourselves in a way that didn't generate so much CO2 and methane, and on top of that, if we could manage our population and consumption, we could live harmoniously within the bounds of what planet Earth is capable of providing for us. Right now, we're out of balance.
There are potent forces at work, including banks and petroleum companies. Talking about that status quo, it's not just the guy locking the door to his house when the fire is coming, thinking, I lock my door because it's not going to burn down, even though it's obvious that it is going to burn down. That's how banks and petroleum companies function. These are leaders—people in total denial—with no understanding of chemistry and physics, and that's dangerous.
And eventually, nature is going to correct, and it's already started doing that in Alberta where smoke and fire have repeatedly shut down petroleum operations. We will have more interruptions like that, except it will be crops and water supplies that are interrupted, until we are forced to make changes.
And, to this day, despite the news coming out of Miami and Phoenix, those cities are still growing rapidly. Anyone who's looking at the climate file understands that is an irrational thing to do. To move toward those places doesn't make any sense from an investment and safety point of view, from raising your kids in a happy, healthy, wholesome place point of view. Neither one of those cities will be viable in a generation, or it's going to be radically different from what it is now.
And so, we've got a steep learning curve ahead of us, and different communities and different individuals will dial in and change their behavior at different rates. It's going to be a mixed bag. But there are already people who are adapting to new changes, to this new world that we made. We made it. So, those people will be in higher and higher demand as the pressure builds, and we will see.
I think what may happen is, it's going to appear very slow, and then it's going to happen really fast. And that's, again, where Fort McMurray offers a sort of microcosmic example. They're fighting the fire, they're fighting the fire, they're fighting the fire, and suddenly, within 45 minutes, everybody's running for their lives. There was a radical change in behavior and understanding of what the threat was, and I think we're getting there. We're getting to that point where people will have to start reacting in a way that's actually relevant and related to what's actually happening, as opposed to the fantasy of the 20th century economy that they carry in their heads.
John Vaillant is the author of the acclaimed, award-winning nonfiction books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger. His debut novel, The Jaguar's Children, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. Vaillant has received the Governor General's Literary Award, British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, and the Pearson Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. He has written for, among others, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and The Walrus. He lives in Vancouver.