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Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World

by John Vaillant

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2981088,797 (4.43)17
"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"--… (more)
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    At Home : a short history of private life by Bill Bryson (charlie68)
    charlie68: A very readable book with a lot of inane facts that make the world more interesting.
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» See also 17 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
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 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. ( )
  FormerEnglishTeacher | Apr 10, 2024 |
Summary: An account of the Fort McMurray fire of 2016, when a forest fire consumed a town and became a harbinger of things to come in a hotter, drier world.

I never wore face masks outdoors during all of the COVID epidemic. I did several days last summer when a smoky haze that had traveled a thousand miles settled over the Midwest and other parts of the eastern United States. For much of the summer, vast tracts of forest were on fire in Canada. News just today indicates there are zombie fires burning underground and dry conditions in western Canada portend another fire summer.

John Vaillant tells the story of what happened when a raging wilderness fire intersected with an oil industry town, Fort McMurray in Alberta. Fort McMurray grew to a city of 90,000 people because of our insatiable thirst for oil. The tar sands nearby are rich in bitumen, which can be converted through energy intensive processes to the petroleum products helping to warm our atmosphere. Fort McMurray also exists in the heart of the boreal forests that stretch across the north of Canada.

Conditions in the spring of 2016 were exceptionally warm and dry. A high pressure system yielded blue skies unseasonably high temperatures and low humidity, further drying out the forest around the town. On May 1, a small fire known as Fire 009, the ninth fire around Fort McMurray, was sited southwest of the town, on the other side of the river. By May 2, officials began to worry, even as they projected calm. But those in the know knew May 3 would be hard. No one knew how hard. Another hot, dry day, with winds coming around to blow out of the southwest and freshening. All the ingredients were present for the fire to explode…and it did. The morning began with brilliant blue skies. Suddenly, at 12:15, everyone discovered that a monster was among them. In rapid order, neighborhoods were consumed. While people got up expecting a normal day, suddenly they needed to evacuate–immediately–90,000 of them.

The amazing story is that none of them died. But much of the town did. Firefighters tore down rows of houses and were able to save others. What they discovered however was that when a fire became this intense, rivers were not a barrier, that fire tornados and other freak meteorological occurrences could cast the fire over firebreaks and natural obstacles. The fire would seek fuel.

That’s one of the interesting things the emerges from Vaillant’s rendering of the many eyewitness accounts–that the fire was a kind of living thing–akin to the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings. He describes the flammability of the boreal forest, particularly the black spruces, dripping with sap, exploding into flame as the wall of heat of the fire approaches. They are like bombs, containing all this stored energy. Vaillant describes another kind of bomb–the residential houses in the fire’s path. Made of vinyl siding, kiln dried wood framing, shingled roofs, polyurethane, polyester in furniture curtains and clothes, and all sorts of other petroleum based plastics throughout as well as gas cans, propane tanks, and other flammables. Houses went from livable structures to holes in the ground in less than five minutes.

Vaillant describes the stunning awakening from “this is no big deal” to “the apocalypse has come” of the residents. He goes on to describe the slower, more insidious burn as our atmosphere warms. He retells the story of what we know and when we knew it about greenhouse gasses and anthropogenic global warming. The basic physics was demonstrated in 1856. By 1956, scientists were testifying before Congress. Their predictions, even back then are startlingly accurate. There was no partisan debate. But nothing was done. As early as the 1970’s, the oil companies own scientists knew. And there was a window of time when something could be done to avert the dramatic climate changes we are seeing. Now we may be facing a rapidly closing window to avert changes on such a scale that they result in a mass extinction of much of life.

Vaillant is one of many voices describing the future on our doorstep. Year round fire seasons in many parts of the world is the impact on which he focuses. Fuel, dry conditions, wind, and a spark are all that’s needed for another Fort McMurray at the wilderness urban interfaces where many of us live. The irony is that we keep lighting the fire that fuels the fire everyday. Fort McMurray with its petrochemical industry, is in microcosm the story in which we all are implicated. Vaillant not only tells a riveting story about a monster fire. He tells a sobering story that demands we face the reality of the world we are leaving our children and grandchildren. It could very well be one where they are fighting, and maybe running, for their lives. But to where will they run? ( )
  BobonBooks | Mar 5, 2024 |
Non-fiction about the 2016 Fort McMurray, Alberta fire, and about large scale wildfires driven by climate change in general. Some really gripping scenes, also some filler chapters. ( )
  adamhindman | Feb 5, 2024 |
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 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. ( )
  streamsong | Feb 5, 2024 |
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 is inter-related with today's larger fires; the wild-land urban interface; and petroleum extraction and consumption. It is a call to action. ( )
  Michael_Lilly | Jan 6, 2024 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Vaillantprimary authorall editionscalculated
Carlson, AlanNarrator.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation. -Alexander von Humbolt
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To the scientists and visionaries
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On a hot afternoon in May 2016, five miles outside the young petro-city of Fort Murray, Alberta, a small wildfire flickered and ventilated, rapidly expanding its territory through a mixed forest that hadn't seen fire in decades. -Prologue
'If a tree burns in a forest and nobody sees it...' In Canada, this is more than a philosophical question. -Chapter 1
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"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"--

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