The fires in western U.S. and Canada, Australia, Siberia, and elsewhere have been more intense in recent years, and John Vaillant has explanations, several of them in fact, for that. I’d like to say they are succinct, but this wordy and story-filled book is not that.
On the other hand, “Fire Weather” is well-written and quite the enjoyable read, although his digressions seem a little long and off-point at times. And the book is more than a tad scary at points.
The book is ostensibly focused on the Fort McMurray fire of 2016, which is notable for its evacuation of 88,000 people in an afternoon without warning. It was the entire population of this small oil shale mining city in Alberta, Canada, and almost the entire city was burned to the ground.
That story would have been enough to tell all there is to know about the horror shows of recent fires, but Vaillant goes further, much further.
He starts with a brief history of this one-time fur trapping outpost of Canada, including its bounty of shale oil and how it is mined, then goes into an explanation of how fire works its wonderful-but-awful magic that can turn almost anything into ash.
He explains that the homes we live in, the types of furnishings and fixtures and other stuff we have are very flammable. And the houses are built so close to each other at the edge of forests that fire is all but inevitable. The result is that a typical house can burn to the ground in 5 minutes. Our cars are flammable, and for that matter the infrastructure that supports modern life is flammable, even if you think it’s not.
And then he explains when you give fire to the environment of a warming planet you have the horror that is 21st Century fire on your hands because the hotter and drier it is, the easier it is for a fire to start and to spread. It’s almost as if you give a matchstick life and tell it to do as it pleases, you’ll quickly have a conflagration as fire, once started, leaps from structure to structure.
Vaillant writes of other fires that make his point – we have the weather for fire, the material for fire, so we’re going to have fire — lots of it.
This is an important book, more important than those that merely say that our planet is heating up. “Fire Weather” gives you a practical, and actionable result. Scary though they may be, you can do some things to protect yourself, and that’s a good thing.