In Canada’s Wilds, a Chilling Inferno Was Also an Omen

It is a gripping yarn, though the storytelling is at times slowed by Vaillant’s wanderings. There’s a painstaking history of the use of bitumen over the millenniums. There’s a discourse on the quasi-spiritual nature of fire in its many forms, which eventually meanders into a meditation on oxygen and human breathing. There’s a lengthy rehashing of the roots of climate science, activism and denialism.

With a few poignant exceptions — including the story of a Fort McMurray welder named Wayne McGrath, who valiantly tries to fight off the blaze and his own demons — “Fire Weather” lacks many memorable human characters. But Vaillant fills that void with an unforgettable protagonist: fire itself.

A raging wildfire is hard to fathom for anyone who has not stood in its path. Vaillant is clearly in awe as he lovingly details 009’s inner workings and apocalyptic fallout.

The forest surrounding Fort McMurray consisted largely of black spruces that were dripping with flammable sap. As the tall trees ignited, the fire inhaled oxygen from below. That spawned powerful and sustained winds that screamed up toward the treetops and then gusted embers and sparks hundreds of yards out from the fire, fueling its relentless growth.

In the center of the fire, a jet of fast-rising, superheated air sucked hundreds of thousands of gallons of water — from fire hoses, broken pipes, icy rivers — skyward. Miles overhead, the air cooled and the water vapor turned to carbon-infused ice, and “hurricane-force downdrafts hurled fusillades of black hail” back to the ground.

Vaillant notes that homes used to be crammed with natural materials: wooden tables and chairs, sofas stuffed with cotton, curtains made of lace — flammable, yes, but not compared with today’s combustible houses. Now furniture is made of plastic or wood composites, held together with resins and glues and coated or filled with synthetic materials like nylon and polyurethane. “Today,” Vaillant writes, “it is common to find oneself sitting or sleeping on furniture composed almost entirely of petroleum products.”

No wonder then that within minutes, newly built homes in Fort McMurray were reduced to cinder.

Vaillant anthropomorphizes fire. Not only does it grow and breathe and search for food; it strategizes. It hunts. It lays in wait for months, even years. Vaillant even quotes someone comparing forest fires to farmers cultivating their crops.

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