'Fire Weather' exposes the unavoidable phase shifts of our burning world

July 5, 2023
FIre Weather

Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World
By John Vaillant
Knopf, 2023
414 pp.

“Ah you can fool them alright/ But can you fool the beast?”
Horslips, “You Can’t Fool the Beast”

“It's the bitter end we've come down to/The eye of the needle that we gotta get through/But the end could be the start of something new/When the great correction comes”
Eliza Gilkyson, The Great Correction”

John Vaillant — who may be the contemporary Hunter S Thompson of environmental journalists — has seen our Earth’s future up close and personal, and it is a fearsome, firey “beast”.

As he recounts in exquisite detail in his new book Fire Weather, that future visited in 2016, when a massive boreal-forest wildfire devastated the tar-sands industrial city of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta province, Canada.

As Vaillant affirmed in a June 22 interview with Green Left, that future is now reality, as more boreal fires sweep eastern Canada, and smoke and heat blanket much of the United States, disrupting air-travel and the economy in what he calls “the Cascade Effect”.

“It’s when one system breaks down and there are all these other consequences that you never think of,” he says.

Vaillant, a Vancouver-based, New Yorker-published researcher, whose earlier books explored Siberian tiger hunts and Canadian logging atrocities, was shocked by what he discovered about the Fort McMurray tragedy and our irreversibly changed and changing world environment.

Vaillant even resurrected an obsolete 17th Century English Puritan adjective — “infandous” — to apply to the all-consuming fire-storms and unprecedented fire-tornadoes that struck Fort McMurray, vast areas of Australia, California and elsewhere in recent years. It means “a thing too horrible to be named or uttered”.

Vaillant compares the fires to the destruction inflicted by the wartime bombings of Hamburg, Dresden and Hiroshima. However, he notes, this devestation occurred in peace-time, caused not by military malevolence, but the disruptive results of the hydrocarbon-fuelled advance of what he labels our “Petrocene Age”.

“During this first century and a half of the Petrocene Age, as we have harnessed, democratized, and amplified fire on demand, we have also unleashed some unintended consequences: a by-product of becoming a petroleum-based society — in other words, a fire-based society — has been the superheating of the atmosphere.” (Fire Weather, p. 231)

He points out in his book that even the Arctic tundra is now burning — a fact that would have been unthinkable only decades ago. He describes such sharp and widely unanticipated (though scientifically predicted) changes as “phase-shifts”.

Vaillant told GL he was shaken by his discoveries, as readers of his best-selling book must be. Yet, he said, he also is encouraged by the fact that there were no fatalities in the Fort McMurray wildfire, in a city with a population of 90,000.

His book’s most gripping sections include the survival stories, and the apocalyptic observations of Alberta and California fire fighters and ordinary citizens.

“When I started talking to these people, I realised that they had seen the future. They had seen things we haven’t seen. It gave my reporting a new urgency. These folks — as ordinary as they may seem — really have something to tell us. As you read their stories, it’s amazing that they survived, and they put us there in graphic fashion with real candor and authenticity. It’s amazing but also really scary to hear what they have to stay,” Vaillant said.

Perhaps the most striking personal story in the book is that of Wayne McGrath, a tough Fort McMurray oil company employee who fought to save his house and his beloved Harley Davidson but ultimately had to flee the flames, only to return against warnings to rescue his bike, if not his home. Sadly, McGrath died some months later in a snowmobile accident — which might be attributed to the symptoms of undeniable PTSD, another instance of the Cascade Effect.

“There are a lot of cold-blooded stories of pink-slips under the door in the morning from the company up there. Yeah, the money’s good, but when they don’t want you, they really don’t want you,” Vaillant told GL.

“The trauma of the fire and then being ill-used by the company he’d gone up there to serve for 20 years — it somehow broke something in him — and he was a very tough, resilient man. When an institution you work for, whether it’s a university or a newspaper or an oil company, treats you in a disrespectful or a dehumanising way, that affects how we feel about ourselves and about the world.”

Vaillant was shocked at how the Fort McMurray citizens, whom he visited after the fire, all seemed not to have changed their political attitudes towards either the company or the concept of climate change (which they rejected).

He attributes this “mind-blowing” attitude to the irresistible attraction of the security and affluence provided by employment in the booming oil-extraction industry. Alberta is the US’s primary supplier of foreign oil products.

“If you broke out of poverty and were able to build a middle-class life because of the oil industry, you’ll adjust yourself to that industry, doing whatever fancy mental footwork you must do to make it fit together,” he said.

Despite their understandably mercenary accommodations, Vaillant sees admirable and hopeful qualities in the social-solidarity and community coherence of the Fort McMurray citizens. “No one died, and there were no bones found in the burned buildings — and that, in a diverse city with some 80 native languages,” he said.

Fire Weather includes fascinating and informative sections that explore the long history of fire, of oil exploitation and of capitalist industrial development in Alberta and worldwide, as well as some intriguing philosophical/historical examinations of our understanding of the nature of fire and of our planet.

When I asked Vaillant if he thinks our society can adjust to the rapid “phase shifts” now happening all around our planet and the need to stop using petroleum, he was scathing in his criticism of the intransigent capitalist corporate enterprise.

“The heads of the oil companies are captive to profits, and their behaviour is sociopathic,” he said.

“The structure of the corporation is that it punishes any radical departure from the status quo. The fact is that there is such separation from the shareholders, who don’t feel the toll their profits take on others. It does not serve the needs of this moment.”

Vaillant wrote: “When it comes to rapidly and radically altering a landscape along with the lives of those who live upon it, only a few things compare to a big boreal fire, and one of them is the profit motive.”

Vaillant seems to see hope in China’s alternative approach to the global warming crisis. “In China, having monolithic power, you can order energy transition and get it. China is blowing the world away.”

Asked what his next writing project may be, Vaillant told GL he plans to stay with the larger story opened up for him and his readers by Fire Weather.

“We are in transition,” he says, “This book was a soul-damaging look at the devastation, but our situation is dynamic. Fire Weather is just an instalment in the story of the impending future. There is a lot more to say about all of it.”

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