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“Author John Vaillant warns that the Earth is experiencing a fever due to the firestorms that are inevitable for all of us.”


In the afternoon of May 3, 2016, firefighters noticed a large amount of smoke in the vicinity of Fort McMurray, an oil city in Canada. This was unusual for the time of year in the subarctic area where there were still chunks of ice on the lakes. A helicopter was quickly deployed to drop water on the fire, but it was already too late. In just two hours, the flames had spread through 60 hectares (150 acres) of forest. By the end of the day, 90,000 individuals had been evacuated from their residences. Entire neighborhoods had been destroyed by the fire.

John Vaillant, author of Fire Weather, recounts that a week after the event, the city resembled a site of nuclear devastation. The aftermath of the disaster left behind only heaps of nails where houses once stood. While searching through the debris of her former residence, a journalist discovered a colander and some barbecue tools as the only remaining items. Even the ceramic toilet had been completely destroyed.

While attending a writing retreat in Italy, Vaillant was in the process of working on his second novel when news of a story started to spread on social media. He compares the shock of hearing this news to finding out that Houston was on fire. In Canada, Fort McMurray is known as the central hub for petroleum and is considered a wealthy, influential, and overly developed city. The idea of it being engulfed in flames was truly astounding. According to Vaillant, the city was enveloped in a towering firestorm cloud that reached 45,000 feet in height. The intensity of the fire was so extreme that it broke through the stratosphere, creating its own lightning and producing hurricane-force winds.

Firestorm … an abandoned truck on Alberta Highway 63 near Fort McMurray.

Remarkably, the evacuation was incredibly effective, resulting in only two deaths caused by a car accident in the chaotic rush to leave. As they tried to convey the terrifying experience, the survivors turned to imagination, referencing Tolkien’s Balrog and the destructive fires from the movie Armageddon. According to Vaillant, these survivors serve as a testimony to what is yet to come. “Being with them was similar to being with biblical prophets Isaiah or Ezekiel – except their names are Carol, Dave, and Rob, and they have ordinary jobs. But they witnessed something that most of us have not and hope to never witness.”

Having a conversation with Vaillant is comparable to being pulled into a nightmarish realm. At the age of 61, with silver hair and having relocated from Massachusetts to Vancouver 25 years ago, he began writing in his 30s. His focus is on the clash between humanity and the natural world. In his book The Golden Spruce, released in 2006, he shares the story of an environmental activist who took extreme action by cutting down a tree that was sacred to the Haida people in order to raise awareness about the harmful effects of logging. Four years later, in The Tiger, Vaillant writes about a pursuit for a man-eating predator in the frozen Russian taiga. While his previous works focused on finding a way to coexist with nature, Fire Weather explores the consequences when such a compromise cannot be reached.

The morning after his victory, Vaillant speaks with enthusiasm about the main idea of Fire Weather: a global breakdown of climate conditions that can sustain life. He notes that we are currently in chilly London, where catastrophic bush fires seem like distant events on television. However, he cautions against being deceived. Vaillant explains, “We tend to think of England and Canada as places that cannot catch on fire. But we are being forced to quickly adjust, which causes great internal conflict both mentally and intellectually. Climate change has an advantage over us because we are so attached to the old world we grew up in. We have made all our plans and built our infrastructure based on a world that no longer exists.”

The combination of heat in the atmosphere and dryness on the forest floor were crucial elements in the destructive mix that caused the devastating fire in Fort McMurray. The fire burned with an unprecedented intensity, reaching extremely high temperatures. However, there was another contributing factor: the expansion of residential areas with houses constructed and furnished with the same petrochemicals that brought wealth to the city of Alberta.

Raging … people flee the flames.

According to Vaillant, the term “spalling” is rarely used unless the temperature reaches 500 degrees. This refers to the process of concrete losing all its moisture. As a writer, he believes it is important to find the right words to describe this new reality. He emphasizes the power of words, even in a world that is desensitized. While the English language already has words for these situations, they have not been frequently used. Now, they are being utilized like firefighters being called into action. He gives the example of “infandous,” which means something too terrible to be spoken or named. For a mayor or fire chief, the idea of a fire spreading uncontrollably through a town they are responsible for protecting is infandous.

One issue with addressing unspeakable events is that they often go unprepared for due to their extreme nature. This was evident in Fort McMurray and its neighboring forests, where firefighters had to clear paths through housing in order to contain the fire. This type of lack of foresight has been called the Lucretius problem by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, who summarized the words of the ancient Roman poet and philosopher as: “A foolish person assumes that the tallest mountain they have seen is the tallest in the world.”

The issue is worsened by the reluctance of countries and companies to divest from oil, despite numerous warnings over the years. In 1979, major oil companies appeared to be in agreement with the primary goal of the first World Climate Conference – to anticipate and prevent potential human-caused climate changes that could harm humanity. However, according to Vaillant, there has been a shift in the petroleum industry. It is unclear if it was triggered by Russia’s invasion or if the industry is anticipating its decline, but they now seem more focused on maximizing profits and less concerned with pretending to be environmentally conscious. They are now adamant about continuing to burn oil for as long as possible.

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Gripping … Vaillant’s book.

The residents of Fort McMurray, including individuals named Carol, Dave, and Rob, support the destruction of the environment because they come from poor coastal regions in Canada and rely on the industry for employment. This is similar to the main character in Vaillant’s first novel, The Jaguar’s Children, who is a young migrant from Mexico. These individuals come from rural areas with few opportunities and are seeking to be a part of modern society. While the petroleum industry offers high-paying jobs, it ultimately contributes to the destruction of our planet.

Vaillant, writing for the Guardian, covered a significant wildfire in Redding, California, two years after the Fort McMurray blaze. He mentions that these events now seem distant in the past. He also notes that in just one summer, Canada experienced 100 cumulonimbus fire clouds, which are massive global occurrences similar to hurricanes, but caused by fire. He adds that typically, only volcanoes have the ability to produce such intense energy.

Nature can provide a gripping and fast-paced story that rivals fiction. According to the speaker, the current era is unprecedented and cannot be taken lightly. While some may refer to it as the “new normal,” this is a misnomer as there is no set standard for what is happening. We are in uncharted territory, facing a climate that is constantly changing and unpredictable. Wildfires are just one of the many consequences of this unknown climate, as we also experience floods and droughts caused by the same underlying force. Ultimately, it all boils down to the impact of heat and the greenhouse gases of carbon dioxide and methane.

What impact has Vaillant’s research had on his personal life? “Currently, I am constantly traveling,” he shares. “I am basically living on a plane. But I have never been as passionate about a book before. I will continue to promote it as long as there is interest in discussing it, because I can’t think of anything more crucial. We have caused a global warming crisis on this planet. And it is ironic that the industry responsible for this is the same one that relies on burning fuels extracted from the ground at a high cost.”

Vaillant’s voice turns apocalyptic as a chill fills the room. He explains that while fire has brought great advancements and prosperity, it has also unintentionally given power to the climate. This has resulted in a world that is more susceptible to explosive fires than ever before in human existence.

Source: theguardian.com