When fire goes feral

A conversation with John Vaillant, author of ‘Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World.’


On May 1, 2016, the Alberta, Canada, oil boomtown of Fort McMurray received warning of a wildfire in the forest about seven miles to its west. Despite initial reassurances from fire officials, the fire raced toward the city, swelling to more than half a million acres, and on May 3, 88,000 people were forced to evacuate. The fire — locals called it “The Beast” — destroyed more than 2,400 homes, caused $9 billion in damages, and profoundly disrupted the lives of all who experienced it. To author John Vaillant, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, its ferocity served as both a literal and a metaphorical expression of the petroleum industry’s power — as well as a shocking harbinger of the future. Which it was: By mid-May of this year, there were 90 wildfires burning in Alberta, 23 of them out of control.

HCN spoke with Vaillant about his new book Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, out this month from Knopf. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Many of us in the U.S. West don’t know how devastating the Fort McMurray fire was. What set it apart from other North American wildfires?

John Vaillant: The size and the speed — and the fact that it ran right into an oil hub. The only reason Fort McMurray is where it is, and is the size it is now, is because of the bitumen industry, which is a feedstock for petroleum. We import nearly 4 million barrels a day of Fort McMurray petroleum into the United States; it’s our biggest foreign source of petroleum.

There’s a sense in Fort McMurray that we’re a young, strong, hardworking city of achievers. We overcome massive obstacles. So when they saw this fire, there was a sense of, we got this. Fire is nothing new to us up here.

That’s all true, but in the 21st century, it’s harder to accurately predict how fire is going to behave. We’re learning that there are micro-thresholds — when you have, say, 11% humidity instead of 25% humidity and 90 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 75 degrees Fahrenheit — where fire becomes empowered. It goes feral.

Lauren Crow/High Country News

HCN: You have an amazing scene where one of the fire managers is on the local radio station, sending a message of “It’s OK, we’re on top of this.” And as he’s being interviewed, the cloud of smoke on the horizon gets blacker and blacker, and the reporter sees him start to sweat. Even people who knew intellectually what might happen just found it hard to imagine.

JV: This is the advantage that climate change has over us. We can have the data, but that doesn’t mean we always interpret it in a meaningful way. So the people whose job it is to protect communities can look at the fire weather index and see that wow, this is serious. And yet that doesn’t automatically translate into action, into oh my gosh, this could overrun the city, we should evacuate now. That’s why one of the things that really resonated for me was the idea of the Lucretius problem.

HCN: Tell us about the Lucretius problem.

JV: Lucretius was a poet and philosopher who lived in Rome during the first century BCE. The Lucretius problem, roughly paraphrased, is that the fool believes the tallest mountain of all is the tallest mountain that he himself has seen. In other words, we’re often limited by personal experience. If you haven’t felt it viscerally yourself, there’s a little part of you that can’t believe it’s possible.

HCN: Nobody could believe the Fort McMurray fire was going to be as bad as it was except for the volunteer firefighters from the nearby town of Slave Lake, who had experienced a fire of similar ferocity in 2011.

JV: The firefighters from Slave Lake were kind of a Greek chorus; the future had already happened to them. In a matter of hours, they lost 500 houses, they lost the library, they lost the city hall, they lost the radio station. They lost a third of the town in an afternoon.

What was most notable about that fire was the heat. People came back looking for the tractor mowers in their garage and found that the garage and the tractor mower had basically vaporized. That’s not what a house fire does, and it’s not what most wildfires do. But it’s what a 21st century fire is capable of doing.

It was important to me to get at the psychological destabilization that results from that kind of fire. This place where you raised your kids, and might have been raised yourself, is gone. It isn’t like, well, the roof burned off, maybe we can rebuild. There’s simply nothing left. You’ve been negated.

It was important to me to get at the psychological destabilization that results from that kind of fire. 

HCN: During the Fort McMurray fire, the evacuation orders came very late, but the evacuation itself was almost miraculously smooth. And this was in an oil town with a definite rowdy side — it’s easy to imagine how it could have gone another way. What happened?

JV: I think people are going to be puzzling that out for a long time. Many of the workers in the bitumen camps were evacuated by jet — those facilities are so big that they have their own aerodromes. So most of the people in the endless lines of cars snaking through the flames in Fort McMurray worked in the industry as permanent employees. They owned real estate, they had families.

There’s also a very strong culture of faith in Fort McMurray — not just evangelical Christians, but many Muslims, many Hindus. So there’s community through the neighborhoods and through the churches. And then there’s this sort of Canadian discipline that says, it’s not all about you. The Canadian equivalent of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is peace, order and good government. So during the evacuation, people were stopping at traffic lights even as every single tree in sight was on fire and their kids were in the back screaming and crying. They followed the rules, and those rules saved their lives.

HCN: It’s been almost exactly seven years since the Fort McMurray fire. How has the city changed?

JV: Well, the petroleum industry is a wholly owned subsidiary of fire. It’s founded on burning, and if it doesn’t keep burning stuff, it will be out of business. The notion of responding to climate change in a way that might stifle or redirect the energy of the petroleum industry is pretty much off-limits in northern Alberta. And so Fort McMurray is rebuilding as fast as it can, expanding production as fast as it can.

There are plenty of people in Fort McMurray who are still traumatized by the fire. Many first responders have health issues, and some have had to resign themselves to the fact that they’re going to live shorter lives. But the links between the industry and climate change and between climate change and fire are still a little bit abstract. People think: “This was a terrible thing that happened to us, one that we would never want to happen to anybody else. But we’ve got to go on; we’ve got to get back in the saddle.”   

We welcome reader letters. Michelle Nijhuis is acting editor-in-chief at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.  

High Country News Classifieds
    The new novel by Ray Ring, retired HCN senior editor, tackles racism in the wild, a story told by a rural White horsewoman and a...
    Title: Digital Engagement Specialist Location: Salt Lake City Reports to: Communications Director Status, Salary & Benefits: Full-time, Non-Exempt. Salary & Benefits information below. Submission Deadline:...
    Title: Conservation Field Organizer Reports to: Advocacy and Stewardship Director Location: Southwest Colorado Compensation: $45,000 - $50,000 DOE FLSA: Non-Exempt, salaried, termed 24-month Wyss Fellow...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Apply by Oct 18. Seeking collaborative, hands-on ED to advance our work building community through fresh produce.
    High Country News is hiring an Indigenous Affairs Editor to help guide the magazine's journalism and produce stories that are important to Indigenous communities and...
    Staff Attorney The role of the Staff Attorney is to bring litigation on behalf of Western Watersheds Project, and at times our allies, in the...
    Northern Michigan University seeks an outstanding leader to serve as its next Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. With new NMU President Dr. Brock...
    The Clark Fork Coalition seeks an exceptional leader to serve as its Executive Director. This position provides strategic vision and operational management while leading a...
    Help uphold a groundbreaking legal agreement between a powerful mining corporation and the local communities impacted by the platinum and palladium mine in their backyard....
    The Feather River Land Trust (FRLT) is seeking a strategic and dynamic leader to advance our mission to "conserve the lands and waters of the...
    COLORADO DIRECTOR Western Watersheds Project seeks a Colorado Director to continue and expand WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Colorado,...
    Digital Media Specialist - WY, MT, UT OFFICE LOCATION Remote and hybrid options available. Preferred locations are MT, WY or UT, but applicants from anywhere...
    Whitman College seeks applicants for a tenure-track position in Indigenous Histories of the North American West, beginning August 2024, at the rank of Assistant Professor....
    Dave and Me, by international racontuer and children's books author Rusty Austin, is a funny, profane and intense collection of short stories, essays, and poems...
    Rural Community Assistance Corporation is looking to hire a CFO. For more more information visit: https://www.rcac.org/careers/
    The Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation (ABWF) seeks a new Executive Director. Founded in 2008, the ABWF is a respected nonprofit whose mission is to support...
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the northern Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
    Popular vacation house, everything furnished. Two bedroom, one bath, large enclosed yards. Dog-friendly. Contact Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
    We characterize contaminated sites, identify buried drums, tanks, debris and also locate groundwater.