Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World

by John Vaillant

Hardcover, 2023

Call number

363.3 VAI


Knopf (2023), 432 pages


"In May 2016, the city of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, burned to the ground, forcing 88,000 people to flee their homes. It was the largest evacuation ever of a city in the face of a forest fire, raising the curtain on a new age of increasingly destructive wildfires. This book is a suspenseful account of one of North America's most devastating forest fires-and a stark exploration of our dawning era of climate catastrophes"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member deusvitae
A thorough analysis and consideration of the 2016 Fort McMurray fire and all it represents, defining, as the author indicates, the "Pyrocene."

The story of the 2016 Fort McMurray fire is set forth in expansive detail, driven by many first-person interviews and perspectives. Yet it is continually set
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in its full context: the tar sands bitumen oil boom which allowed Fort McMurray to grow, the capitalist/colonialist drive to exploit resources to the full, and making an allegory of the irony of how the place built by exploiting resources that burn itself burned to the ground.

I have never read a more thorough and comprehensible explanation of what hydrocarbons are, how tar sand bitumen is made into crude oil, or the properties of fire than in this book. The complete history of the development of fossil fuels - and the discovery of the climactic effects of their burning - are set forth.

And the author does quite well at expressing how this is the "new normal" we have created for ourselves, the result of willful blindness and delay 40 years ago, and it's going to be here with us for quite some time. Our obsession with burning will burn us all.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
This is the true story of the 2016 wildfire that engulfed Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Nearly 100,000 people had to evacuate, and it was the largest most rapid single day evacuation in the history of modern fire. The Fort McMurray fire is also the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian
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history, and it burned for months. The fire was also "a direct hit...on the epicenter of Canada's multibillion dollar petroleum industry."

The book is a blow by blow account of the fire--how it started, how it grew, where it moved--and how it was fought. But it is also an examination of the petroleum industry and climate change, and the implications of climate change vis a vis what seem to be more frequent and more fierce wildfires.

The book reads like a thriller, and it is a warning that events such as this one will become more and more common. It details how our common everyday activities--what we wear, how we furnish our homes, how and where we build our homes, and more--all have contributed to conditions that make extreme fires like the Fort McMurray fire more likely.

Highly recommended.

4 stars
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LibraryThing member charlie68
I liked the first three-quarters of the book with the science of fires and personal accounts of the Fort McMurray fire as it attacked people's homes and properties. Felt like I was there myself. But the last quarter of the book was very negative bordering on cynical wavering into paranoia. There
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has to be a middle ground where responsible oil and gas extraction meets with environmental standards. People need to eat and work and if we are really past the point of no return like the author suggests maybe we should cover ourselves in sackcloth and ashes and sit outside and hope God will be merciful. I know one thing environmentalists don't have a monopoly on the truth.
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LibraryThing member markm2315
One might think that the story of the great fire of Ft. McMurray, Alberta in 2016 would be similar to other accounts of disaster. The reader would be both horrified and somewhat reassured by the distance of the disaster from his own home in time and space. He or she might tell themself that they
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wouldn’t have bought tickets on the Titanic or been unlucky enough to be in Galveston in 1900. But this account is different since the author shows us how the Ft. McMurray fire was an example of things to come and that it was secondary to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is not just a Canadian problem. I have had trouble sleeping since reading this.

The author is fond of his similes. The book is peppered with them. Fire is like a person, a general, a flower, a lemur, a hurricane, like an oven filled with shoeboxes, etc., and fighting one is like playing lacrosse, but only "as it was originally conceived". These were distracting.

The author uses some big words, which I sometimes appreciated as with anagnorisis and ignescent, but which sometimes were a distraction as with infandous. I don’t think I've ever heard or read the word infandous before [My spellchecker recommends I use infamous.]. It is not in the Random House or Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionaries. I found it in the 1928 Oxford unabridged dictionary where it is listed as obsolete with references from the 17th century. It is also listed in Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words.

I appreciated the quote from Albert Bartlett, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function." I don't know if it is our greatest shortcoming, and it was Bartlett's thing, but I think it is clear that it is an especially unfortunate feature of innumeracy. I also liked the quote from Aubrey Clayton, "The problem with exponential growth is that it means most of the change is always in the recent past". I have asked critics if they remember Al Gore in a cherry-picker in front of a graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide over time. They laugh and say yes, and I inform them that since that movie was made we have produced more carbon dioxide than since we discovered fire. Not all graphed functions are linear.
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LibraryThing member sparemethecensor
Impeccably researched and well written. If the first chapter makes you want to visit Alberta you'll know what a skilled writer he is.
LibraryThing member Michael_Lilly
Highly recommended for everyone, but especially those who live in the wild-land urban interface. It is the story of the huge Fort McMurray fire (2,300 square miles) in Alberta that started in May 3, 2016 and was not fully extinguished until August 20, 2017, but it is also about how climate change
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is inter-related with today's larger fires; the wild-land urban interface; and petroleum extraction and consumption. It is a call to action.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
This is not your standard disaster story, although the story of the disastrous forest fire in and around Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada certainly fulfills that requirement.

The book begins with the history of the he Athabasca oil sands, which are large deposits of bitumen, a very dirty form of
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petroleum. Although the processing of these sands is complex and environmentally costly, they contribute significantly to Canada’s position of a major exporter of oil, especially to the US. Excavation of this oil is only financially feasible when oil prices are very high. But during such times, the industrial infrastructure and the town of Fort McMurry boomed and became what it is today.

The second section of the book recounts the fire itself which began as a small fire May 1, 2016 and exploded quickly into an unstoppable monster that decimated Fort McMurray two days later and was not fully extinguished until July 5th of the next year. Close to 100, 000 people evacuated in an area that had only one road into it – 2500 homes were burned. Miraculously, no lives were lost.

At the height of the story of the fire itself, when I was at the edge of my seat, the third section of the book began. This backtracks, leaves the story of this particular fire and recounts the decades of the earth’s increasing temperature and the effects on wildfires, including creating monster fire tornados, seen not only in this Alberta fire, but also in Australia, California and Greece among other regions. These occur when the temperatures are record breakingly high and the relative humidity is low creating forest fuels dried to the moisture content of kiln-dried lumber.

An interesting point is that the Fort McMurry fire started in May during record high temperature days, when patches of snow were actually still melting. Small fires are not uncommon in the spring, but they rarely explode until later in the summer.

Of course, the book’s third section eventually continued with the fire stories of heroism and desperation along with the environmental lessons.

It's a cautionary tale of future fire behavior as our climate continues to change. I learned a lot about not just this one particular fire but the increased fire behavior in our warming world and also about Canada’s petroleum industry, (especially interesting to me after reading Ducks last year).

4.5 stars. I had to remove a bit because of the pacing – when the author shifted the story during the burning of Fort McMurray to the history of environmental temperature increases, I was ready to toss the book across the room. I’m glad I didn’t.
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LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World is one of those “every human being should read this book” books. It’s that important. I have to admit, I’ve been a little bit of a head in the sand consumer of climate change journalism. It isn’t that I don’t believe in it. In fact, it’s
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probably just the opposite: I know it’s real and it’s catastrophic and it’s inevitable. Out of sight, out of mind. Well, that has to end or we end. Maybe not “we,” but certainly our grandchildren and great-grandchildren…if they manage to make it to existence.
The first 2/3 of this book provides the hook. It’s all about the wildfires in Alberta Canada. The last third is the lesson, a lesson that far too many, especially the political right, have refused to believe. I found out reading the book that much of the climate denying industry has quietly divested themselves of energy investments, not because they want to send a message, but because they know those companies are doomed. These deniers just don’t want to contribute to the truth getting out because it will hurt the price of their soon to be abandoned investments.
The political right all over the world but most notably in this country has been responsible for an awful lot of awful things in the past generation including an attempt to overthrow a duly elected government. But hard as that is to believe, its attempt to deny climate change is existential. We can live under an autocrat. We can live if climate change wins.
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