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Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast - Review of John Vaillant's book by Peter Morgan

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

A review by Peter Morgan

“Wildfire is the most versatile and whimsical of disasters. Able to self-generate from a single spark, explode like a bomb, turn on a dime and fly over obstacles…. Fire possesses an unparalleled capacity for random movement and rapid growth (John Vaillant)

It’s the evening of August 16, 2023. I’m sitting on my lawn in the Upper Mission neighbourhood of Kelowna looking across Okanagan Lake at the wildfires as they move rapidly along the West Kelowna hills. By coincidence, I’ve just finished reading John Vaillant’s new book entitled Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast. Vaillant, a resident of Vancouver, predicts that if you live in places such as British Columbia, a wildfire – “the beast” - could well be coming. And sooner than you think. I’m stunned that ‘soon’ has suddenly turned into ‘now’.

I look again across the lake through binoculars. I’m hit with a huge mix of thoughts and emotions. The wildfire is, for example, a spectacular show of nature. The line of huge flames creates an hypnotic kind of orange glow along the lines of the hills. I’ve just been told that crowds are gathering on this side of the Lake to take it all in. A bit like Canada Day. But of course, it’s not a celebration. I can’t imagine the feelings of people watching the flames approach their homes, possessions and memories of a lifetime. And the anxiety of firefighters who are risking their lives to fight this thing as I sit there and watch.

I’m also fearful. After reading Vaillant’s book, I’m sure this fire will easily leap over the Lake and threaten Kelowna. And if the wind is right, it will have the power to advance on the downtown. At the very least, it will be able to spew live embers all over the city. The cedar hedge just to my left could easily explode in flames once ignited. And I’m exasperated. It is said that it’s the totally unexpected event – the ‘black swan’ – that people find the most difficult to address. But the reverse may be true especially when it comes to climate issues. People find it difficult to summon up the collective effort needed to address a threat that has been analyzed, understood, debated and predicted for decades. The systems it must overcome are too entrenched.

Back to the Vaillant book. It’s worth the effort to read it especially if you live in The Okanagan. He looks at three main subjects: the emerging nature of wildfires in the 21st century, the history of climate denial and delay and most importantly, the incineration of Fort McMurray, the fourth largest city in Alberta, and particularly, the events of May 3, 2016, when nearly 100,000 people were forced to flee in what remains the largest, most rapid, single-day evacuation in the history of modern fire. Vaillant’s book is one of a number of new books, for example, Edward Struzik, Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire and Jeff Goodell’s The Heat Will Kill You First, Life and Death on a Scorched Plant that are trying to warn us how and why we got to where we are. Vaillant’s book has been getting wide attention and has been nominated for a National Book Award in the United States.

Here’s a second suggestion. Take a deep breath before you start it. Read it only if you can deal with a new level of climate anxiety. His basic message is simple, brutal and ominous. A lethal brew of climate warming threats, especially in the form of heat and fire, is bringing an ‘Age of Fire” which will affect us all.

The book contains a wealth of stories and insights which can’t all be covered here. Three stood out for me.

The increasing ferocity of wildfire

This book will change the way you think about the idea of ‘wildfire’. The 21st century version, the ‘beast’ in Vaillant’s terms, bears little relationship to its kinder, gentler fire cousin of the last century. Vaillant describes the Fort McMurry fire as “a hungry and motivated adversary intent on maximum mayhem”.

Today’s version of wildfire emerges out of a combination of factors connected to a changing climate – falling humidities, rising temperatures, huge increases in fuel loads, extended droughts and a wider range of ignitions. The landscape of The Okanagan, for example. is now much more conducive to large, high-intensity blazes over longer periods of time.

Wildfires at full strength can now generate glass-melting heat, explosive growth and random movement. They burn with greater intensity than at any time in human history. Flames can be hundreds of feet tall moving rapidly from place to place. In some instances, a wildfire can generate its own weather in the form of towering pyrocumulous clouds which, in turn, can generate fire whirls, tornadoes and more lightening that can shower embers and ignite more fires miles away.

A wildfire of this type cannot easily be ‘put out’ in the conventional sense of that term. It can only be starved of fuel and energy. Structures in the way are not damaged. They are obliterated. Nothing remains standing as in the cases of Lahaina in Hawaii or Lytton. Live saving not fire fighting becomes the priority.

The return of the urban firestorm

Major urban fires used to be commonplace. Catastrophic blazes reduced large parts of big cities such as London (1666), Chicago (1871), Vancouver (1886) and San Francisco (1906) to ash and rubble. But major improvements in building construction and fire prevention/suppression techniques over the years shifted the threat of fire from urban to rural areas. The last major fire in a large Canadian city was in Toronto in 1904. In the process, people lost a sense of its damaging power. Fire became one more aspect of nature that humans had tamed and mastered.

No longer. The 21st century is witnessing the return of the urban inferno. Vaillant is at his graphic best describing the astonishing scenes inside Fort McMurray on that Monday morning as people suddenly had to confront a catastrophic situation they barely understood. (“that morning, the 88,000 residents of greater Fort McMurray were living in a parallel reality as oblivious to their environment as the passengers on the Titanic were to theirs”).

Families starting to go about their normal day would have to flee for their lives by mid-day. Vaillant describes the fire as almost semi-human, a ‘beast’ attacking the weak points of defence, rushing up and down streets searching ravenously for more fuel to consume. Whole neighbourhoods “giving way to fire like a beach town to a tidal wave”

A stunning impact of the fire was the ‘ashification’ of built structures such as houses, office buildings. Many were located in the ‘WUI’ (i.e. the wildland-urban interface) of Fort McMurray, the first part of the city exposed to the onrushing flames. Their construction and contents provided a ready supply of fuel for the fire in the form of gas, propane and compressed air tanks and household furnishings made out of petroleum products. Firefighters could only watch as houses incinerated in as little as three minutes. Many structures, filled with petroleum vapor created by the heat, would explode without warning.

The failure to change and adapt

Global warming has encouraged many new innovations in wind and solar power, home design and heating, electric vehicles and so on. And with a rapid adoption that was not imagined even 2-3 years ago. But most of these successful innovations emerged from market forces and human entrepreneurship. They did not have to contend with climate denial, misinformation, political resistance or the dilemmas of complex collective action.

Vaillant focuses more on the deeper ‘failures’ associated with global warming, i.e., the continuing rise in greenhouse gases, the increases in temperatures leading, for example, to the drying out of the boreal forest in Canada, the widespread pattern of drought, the intensification of storms, floods and fires. He is saying that the climate and the ecological systems – everywhere – are changing faster than humans are adapting. The societal collective action needed to address these failures remains too little and too late. Countries such as Canada and regions such as The Okanagan are putting themselves further and further behind in the climate race and at greater risk. Vaillant asks if we have passed some key ‘tipping points’ with respect to fire weather.

It’s a week after that Thursday night. I sit on my lawn again looking across the Lake at the hills in West Kelowna that are now largely dark. The immediate danger at least to Kelowna has passed thanks to the courage and skill of the fire fighters. But I keep remembering the Vaillant book and its implicit warnings. And I wonder, and worry, about the future.

  • What actually happened last week? Was that fire always manageable or did the sudden drop-off in the winds and temperature save people in Kelowna from having to face a major urban fire?

  • Are these kinds of fires going to remain seasonal and intermittent or are we likely to see a repeat next year and the year after that? The Upper Mission in Kelowna (where I live) for example, is a classic ‘woodland-urban-interface’. How serious are the emerging risks and to whom in places like this?

  • People in The Okanagan, including me, have managed to maintain their well-intentioned complacency about climate issues despite the 2003 Kelowna fire, the Fort McMurray crisis and the 2017 wildfire season. From what I see, we remain unprepared to deal with a major urban blaze. Will we ignore yet another ‘wake-up’ call and just go back to business as usual?

  • Managing to be ‘fire resistant’ or to ‘co-exist with fire’ isn’t going to be easy. We’re going to need new approaches to forest management, evacuation, municipal government, urban planning, fire fighting, home design and all the rest. Can we summon up the will and capacity to do those things? And at the scale and speed that will make a difference?

  • What might be the role for citizens like me? How should I go about making a contribution? To the city of Kelowna? To my neighbourhood? To my own family?

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