FIRE WEATHER Reviews: Two perspectives, similar conclusions


A stunning account of a colossal wildfire, and a panoramic exploration of the rapidly changing relationship between fire and humankind from the award-winning, best-selling author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce.

In May 2016, Fort McMurray, the hub of Canada’s petroleum industry and America’s biggest foreign supplier, was overrun by wildfire. The multi-billion-dollar disaster melted vehicles, turned entire neighborhoods into firebombs, and drove 88,000 people from their homes in a single afternoon. Through the lens of this apocalyptic conflagration — the wildfire equivalent of Hurricane Katrina — John Vaillant warns that this was not a unique event but a shocking preview of what we must prepare for in a hotter, more flammable world.

Below are two reviews of Vaillant’s book, from two well-qualified writers, one in Canada and one in the U.S., written from two divergent perspectives yet reaching similar conclusions and opinions about the book.

How Fort McMurray’s wildfire became the devil of our own creation

By Heather Mallick, Toronto Star columnist

ALBERTA, CANADA: Fort McMurray helped fuel its own demise and serves as a heavy-handed lesson in irony. Kind, surreally hard-working Albertans never dreamed of such payback.

The best book of the year is easily Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, and not just because the planet spent most of 2023 in flames. Canadian author John Vaillant’s story, which begins with the 2016 fire that destroyed most of Alberta’s Fort McMurray, presents modern fire as a force of nature so implacable, so malevolent, that it might as well be the devil himself.

Like babies who can’t consciously recall trauma, Canadians seem to have forgotten that terrible summer, an odd form of self-defense. Vaillant’s magic is describing this new kind of fire, the unstoppable kind. He uses the word “infandous,” meaning a thing too horrible to be named or uttered. Recall for future use.

Infandous fire will haunt us until we change course on using fossil fuels. As we are seeing with COP28, it’s too late now.

Canada contains 10 percent of the world’s forests. It was once charming to sigh about Canada being an inveterate hewer of wood and hauler of water. But as global heating advances and fires pop up worldwide, the presence of wood endangers humans (and vice versa) and water becomes merely unhelpful.

The only thing that could be done when a distant wee fire got noticed by somebody on May 1 2016 at 4 p.m. was to watch aghast as the thing blew up in hot weather, worsened by drought and high winds. Spraying, soaking, or even waterbombing the blaze was pointless.

Like so many built places, Fort McMurray was in crossover territory, on the border between city and forest — and that’s where trouble lives. Much of it contains black spruce, a tree firefighters refer to as “gas on a stick.” Fire spreads almost instantly with embers shooting into the air like a cloud of kamikazes or a swarm of drones.

Vaillant’s story is plot-driven. Humans found fossil fuel and, hungry for the last dollar-drop, they found a use for Alberta’s tar. It’s not even “bitumen,” Vaillant points out, it’s “bituminous sand. It is to a barrel of oil what a sandbox soaked in molasses is to a bottle of rum.”

Fort McMurray built a dubious industry based on making a lousy version of oil with huge wastage. Americans bought it cheap, and that’s how the city grew out of Canada’s huge boreal forest. Fort McMurray helped fuel its own demise and serves as a heavy-handed lesson in irony. Kind, surreally hard-working Albertans never dreamed of such payback. And here’s irony to burn:  Fort McMurray is filled with the kind of houses suburbanites know by heart: big, poorly built, overpriced, family-friendly homes made of oil. Vinyl siding is made of petroleum, as are flooring, veneered furniture, polyester fabrics, plastic appliances, food packaging, everything. They wait, off-gassing.

When fire arrives, “houses stop being houses. They become, instead, petroleum vapor chambers.” I will underuse the phrase “what made things worse” but technology made the horror more visible.

Sensors, nanny cams, CCTV, and central control mechanisms captured the sight of steel-beamed, 45-tonne homes vanishing. “Fully there, totally normal, to fully gone was five minutes,” one firefighter said. Wait until Vaillant introduces “fire tornadoes,” fires so huge they have their own weather systems.

“Fire Weather” is beautifully handled, full of that rare and valuable quality in non-fiction, context. A New York Times reviewer didn’t like this, bemoaning Vaillant’s unnecessary history, fancy philosophical wanderings, and “climate science, activism, and denialism.” This is exactly the kind of narrow American thinking that created climate change — that there are only individual narrowly defined stories rather than collective ones.

Climate change in the Petrocene Age is the most collective story ever told, Vaillant says, and certainly the biggest story since the Permian-Triassic Extinction Event 250 million years ago, which scientists call “the worst thing that’s ever happened.” And we did it to ourselves. What a species.

Heather Mallick

Reprinted with permission.
Twitter: @HeatherMallick

Heather Mallick is a staff columnist with the Toronto Star whose subjects range widely. She has published two non-fiction books — a diary and an essay collection — and has worked for, the Globe and Mail and other media. With a BA Hons and MA in English Literature from U of T plus a Ryerson journalism degree, she writes with courage and candour, and is an accomplished public speaker.



By Brian Ballou, Retired PIO

FIRE WEATHER:  A true story from a hotter world
John Vaillant, copyright © 2023
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Fire Weather is the story of the Fort McMurray Fire and several other wildfires that attained heroic size in the past 30 years. But it is mostly about climate conditions that have created the perfectly cured fuels which are enabling wildfires to burn uncontrollably and attain immense sizes. It’s a very well-written book and is likely of interest to anyone in the fire service, wildland or municipal, regardless of country. The scope is huge, the story is sad, and the ending isn’t very nice.

The author, John Vaillant, was born in the U.S. but lives in British Columbia. Fire Weather is his fourth book and last month it received the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction. He has also written articles for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and Outside magazines.

He clearly went all out in researching what has been written about wildfire and climate change, and interviewed many people who were intimately affected by the fires he writes about in this book. The result is impressive in scope, provocative, and disturbing. This is not bedtime reading.

Fire Weather launches right into the heart of the Fort McMurray Fire, writing “Choices that day were stark and few: there was Now, and there was Never.”

This sums up what firefighters and residents faced in early May 2016, when a wildfire overran the city of Fort McMurray, located in the boreal forest of northeast Alberta. It was unremarkable in this era of megafires — marked by wildfires with stunningly rapid growth, and which have become virtually unstoppable despite relentless suppression efforts from air and ground. However, 100,000 people lived in Fort McMurray, and on May 3 everyone was ordered to leave.

A significant problem was the options for escape. There were two. The road north ended in 30 miles at Fort McKay. The other was the highway that headed south, AB-63S, which, after four hours of driving, led one to the city of Edmonton. There were other small towns to the south but the problem was the fire. The Fort McMurray Fire originated southeast of the city of Fort McMurray and the wind was blowing toward the northwest. The highway going south was blocked, so residents were advised to go north.

This was a decision made by firefighters and emergency management officials after it became clear that efforts to contain the fire on any flank were unsuccessful. “Even if your equipment and manpower are inadequate to the task at hand, even if your adversary is disintegrating entire houses like a Martian death ray, your duty is to somehow stand between it and the citizenry and infrastructure you’re charged with protecting,” writes Vaillant, following his conversation with firefighter Lucas Welsh.

“It was chaotic and it was personal,” Welsh said. “I love this city. It’s my home and that was my neighborhood; my kids and my wife were five hundred yards away from me and evacuating.”

Fort McMurry wildfire 2:49 am 5-17-2016
Map of the Fort McMurray Fire, (Horse River Fire). The red line was the approximate perimeter the morning of May 16, 2016. The dots represent heat detected by a satellite within the last 24 hours, with red being the most recent, as late as 2:29 a.m. MDT May 17, 2016. Click on the map to see a larger version.

Firefighters were seeing homes go from ignition to complete destruction in five minutes’ time. Crews didn’t know which way to turn. There wasn’t any anchor point. “A lieutenant named Damian Asher compared these frantic efforts to cats chasing a laser pointer.”

While the firefighters chased the conflagration from neighborhood to neighborhood, fire and emergency managers faced the fact that the core problem was the weather. The forecast called for temperatures in the high 80s. “This wasn’t just a little bit warmer than normal — it was almost 30 degrees hotter than the average high for that time of year. Meanwhile, the forecast for relative humidity — 15 percent — was also record-breaking for that date; 15 percent humidity is not typical of the boreal forest in May; it is typical of Death Valley in July.”

“Given the long-term forecast,” writes Vaillant, “this fire could burn as long as the fuel held out, and in these conditions, the boreal forest was nothing but fuel.”

The forest in this part of Alberta is composed of aspen, poplar, and black spruce. Fort McMurray is a city within the wildland/urban interface where just a few steps beyond a home on the edge of town was a “virtually limitless expanse of dog-hair forest and muskeg — moose and beaver country that favors the amphibious and well insulated, and discourages casual exploration. Once beyond the tenuous membrane of suburbia, you were bushwhacking — all the way to Buffalo Head Prairie, two hundred miles to the northwest.”

It probably isn’t coincidence that Vaillant chose the Fort McMurray Fire as the keystone incident in Fire Weather — the city exists because of the oil sands mine and the bitumen extraction plant located right next to Fort McMurray.

Vaillant wastes little time underscoring the irony behind an unstoppable wildfire consuming a city that was built to serve the bitumen extraction industry. Bitumen “is a kind of degenerate cousin to crude oil, more commonly known as tar or asphalt. Surrounding Fort McMurray, just below the forest floor, is a bitumen deposit the size of New York State.” Extracting bitumen is one part of the international petrochemical industry that, decades earlier, authored definitive research papers that precisely predicted the continued warming of the planet largely due to the burning of fossil fuels.

The people mining the fossils and creating the fuels clearly chose to ignore their own research and continued making fuel for internal combustion engines and other products, such as the stuff plastic is made from.

Wildfires in the boreal forest were not unusual for much of Canada’s history, wildfire being a natural agent of change. But really, really big ones were a late-20th-century-to-early-21st-century phenomenon. And it wasn’t unique to North America. Huge fires in boreal forests had blackened millions of acres in Siberia — and Alaska. Elsewhere on the globe, in non-boreal landscapes, vast wildfires burned across Australia, South Africa, Portugal, France, Greece, and Italy. And the United States, mostly in the arid West.

Clearly, something new and different and very dangerous had overtaken much of the world. Call it Global Warming or climate change, and the age in which this is occurring will be called the Petrocene or the Pyrocene. “One among many ways to quantify these changes is through fire behavior: now, virtually every year, on every continent where anything grows, records are being broken for ambient temperature as well as for acres burned and homes destroyed,” writes Vaillant.

To solidify his argument about the violence the new fire environment can present, Vaillant turns to the Carr Fire, which burned near Redding, California in 2018. This part of Fire Weather reads like something from the Old Testament.

“In the rising light of dawn was revealed the aftermath of an atmospheric tantrum so violent it looked as if the Hulk and Godzilla had done battle there,” writes Vaillant of the aftermath of a fire tornado. “A pair of hundred-foot-tall steel transmission towers were torn from their concrete moorings and hurled to the ground. … Trees were torn limb from limb. In the branches of those that survived, where plastic bags might flutter, 10-foot pieces of sheet metal roofing were twisted like silk scarves. A camshaft, a flywheel, a kitchen sink, an oven door, and countless other objects were scattered through the charred forest. There was no glass anywhere. Grass, bark, and topsoil were gone.”

“Nothing, no matter how sturdy or how small, was left intact. Even the stones were broken.”

This is not breaking news for people intimately involved with fire management in the 21st century. But some may have need for further understanding about how this new and dangerous environment was created. Fire Weather does this and merits a look by those seeking answers. But don’t expect a happy ending.

Brian Ballou

Brian Ballou retired after 20 years with the Oregon Department of Forestry. He was a PIO and fire prevention specialist, and was stationed for 8 years at ODF’s headquarters in Salem and 12 years at the Southwest Oregon District headquarters in Central Point. For 7 of those years, Ballou was a lead information officer on one of ODF’s incident management teams. In 2015 he  received a Bronze Smokey award for his service to wildland fire prevention in southwest Oregon.

Prior to joining ODF, Ballou was a seasonal firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, working on the Willamette, Siuslaw, Winema, and Rogue River national forests. He was also the founding editor of Wildland Firefighter Magazine.

It’s Never Over


Documentary film, 1 hour 42 minutes
Independent production

The best hotshot movies in the past few years are those shot by the crews themselves, bundled into visual yearbooks at the end of each fire season and posted on YouTube. Basically, they’re fire candy to keep a wildland firefighter’s mental engine running through the off-season.

Hollywood has taken a few whacks at capturing the wildland fire experience. They’re visually excellent, but consistently unauthentic — a complaint I have heard and read countless times — and those movies have ranged from okay to terrible. Now, out of the blue — or the black — comes Hotshot, a genuinely fine documentary about what it’s like to work on a hotshot crew and fight some truly nasty fires. Be glad you can’t feel the heat. This movie rewrites the definition of getting a little too close to the action.

Justine Gude
Justine Gude, screenshot from the Hotshot movie by Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann

The person you see most in the film is Justine Gude, who was a squad boss on the Texas Canyon IHC. The crew is one of five hotshot crews on southern California’s Angeles National Forest. She goes the extra mile in all aspects to ensure she’s up to snuff to fight wildfires, and to make sure everyone survives each shift. Based on the footage in the film, no one gives Justine any more or any less crap than anyone else gets.

The narrator is Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann, who also wrote, directed, and shot the film. The project took six years to complete. He finished shooting in 2020 and completed editing in 2022; the film has only recently been released for streaming.

“If I had only two years [to complete the film] it may have been more like Top Gun, more like rah rah stuff,” said Mann. As the movie turned out, it is haunting, intimate, wrenching, and absolutely gorgeous.

The film is unusual in that it is a documentary without interviews. A big part of that was because, when working with hotshots when you’re not a hotshot, it can be difficult to get them to open up. “They don’t want to be on camera. I was the fly on the wall shooting candid video.”

Screenshot from the movie Hotshot
Screenshot from the movie Hotshot

“There were things they didn’t want to say on camera, so I was saying it for them. I was saying what they told me.” And it works well. Watching Hotshot is like an illustrated story: the visuals dovetail perfectly with what Mann is saying. The narration has a conversational tone and an easy pace.

Mann obviously did his homework too, which is evident in the segment on wildfire history. He shows and tells how wildfire has been shaping the natural world for many thousands of years and how Native Americans learned to follow nature’s example. But the balance went awry once immigrants started putting out every fire concurrent with spreading slash everywhere. And then, in more recent years, encouraging unnatural growth in the forests while the planet warmed. Hence our current Large Fire problem.

There is also a lovely segment about the increasing use of prescribed fire and large-scale burnouts. Mann calls it “painting with fire.”

The footage is excellent throughout, and is awash in fire whorls, ember showers, gigantic smoke columns, and waves of fire washing over roads, firelines — and occasionally firefighters. For lovers of stunning fire imagery, this film is unbeatable. But be aware that there are some scenes you may wish you could unsee. Mann’s treks through burned-over suburbs and rural communities tell a tale not seen on the evening news, but which firefighters see all too frequently. Animal lovers may want to fast-forward through these parts.

The shots are taken from the fireline, from the boots of those staring down the throat of Mother Nature in a rage. Then there are up-close-and-personal shots of airtankers flooding roads with retardant, helicopters carving through the smoke spilling water from buckets and belly tanks, dozers clanking through brushfields while carving line, and firefighters with hoses fighting a losing battle against a relentless fire front.

For those who’ve been southern California hotshots, watching Hotshots from the comfort of your lazboy may spawn a variety of neural responses. You get to enjoy seeing present-day hotshots doing the same stupid shit you did when you were on a crew — making bets on who could drink a carton of spoiled milk, snorting snuff before starting a line dig, watching a rookie puke after a hell-week highballing hike up a long, hot ridge. This is also, perhaps, a good movie for hotshot candidates to watch. Or not, particularly when they get to the part about the rotten pay federal firefighters (ahem, Forestry Technicians) receive, compared with firefighters from, say, Cal Fire or L.A. County.

For non-fire viewers, or rookies, there is some basic information delivered that is artfully delivered. What is fuel? Trees, fields of brush, houses, cars, washing machines. This is clearly summarized by the narrator and backed up in the visuals: Everything that can burn will burn.

And, oh yeah, pay attention to the wind, says the narrator, showing some rather alarming horizontal flammage, such as when the fire activity near to where they are cutting line starts getting dangerously frisky: “They take a bite, pull back, then take another bite, all day, all night,” says the narrator, while viewers see a crew digging hot line, then stepping back while helicopters spill water along the hot flank, enabling the crew to resume the dig.

Hotshot screenshot
Screenshot from the Hotshot movie by Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann

Thank god there are hotshot crews to handle these debacles. As the narrator aptly puts it, a hotshot crew is “like a Swiss Army knife with beards.” They have everything that they need and nothing that they don’t.

Mann tried to get approval from the Forest Service to get embedded with Texas Canyon and was turned down. But he decided to do it anyway. He got his own PPE, got a press pass, and outfitted a Jeep for line duty. Then he participated with the crew in their pre-season readiness training. “I went through it all with them, the PT hikes, the safety training.” The experience helped him understand, on a personal level, the depth of dedication hotshots have, and he found it humbling. “I felt I was intruding on something sacred.”

Hotshot by Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann
Hotshot by Gabriel Kirkpatrick Mann

Even after he had finished shooting and editing the movie, he couldn’t stop running toward the smoke whenever he saw a column rising from the hills. “I was addicted, and I kept going back even after I was done with the movie.”

Watching the film can be somewhat addicting, too.  To see Hotshot, go to where you have the option to pay $4.99 to watch the movie all you want for 48 hours, or $13 to stream it anytime you want for the rest of your life.


Just Put It Out

Book Review by Brian Ballou

Running Out of Time: Wildfires and Our Imperiled Forests
David L. Auchterlonie and Jeffrey A. Lehman

RUNNING OUT OF TIMEWhen I was asked to review a new book, Running Out of Time, by David Auchterlonie and Jeffrey Lehman, I was underwhelmed. First, I had to set aside the book I was already reading, The Complete Works of P.G. Wodehouse, and then dive into something that looked like it was penned by the Government Accounting Office, something Congress orders when it wants to give one of the federal government’s agencies a good spanking.

Instead, it turned out to be a surprisingly thorough and readable book written by two high-level business troubleshooters who are genuinely concerned about climate change and the role of wildfires in making the planet considerably hotter than it used to be.

Wildfires have come to dominate the news in the past 30 or more years since they have become larger and harder to stop, and the destruction caused by them has reached epic proportions. And this is not just a Western United States problem. Wildfires have plagued the planet — in the U.S. from Alaska to Florida, in Australia and South Africa, southern Europe, and the northernmost forests of Canada and Russia. (If I’ve left anyone out, just wait; your turn is coming.)

Efforts have been made to stop the Big Wildfire problem by a number of agencies in the U.S. However, in the authors’ analysis, the money spent on the cure is way, way short of what is needed.

“A put-the-fire-out-first strategy should be fundamental.”

“[T]he DOI, USDA, Homeland Security, Defense/Energy and others will spend approximately $16.8 billion [in FY2021-22] on forest maintenance and wildfire management. This figure represents only 0.28 percent of the total federal budget. Despite $8.5 billion of increased allocations since 2000, the number of burned acres of forestland also increased by more than 75 percent during the same period. Even with the most recent ten-year funding from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the federal funding commitment is not keeping pace. It is, quite frankly, an embarrassment, considering the stated priorities of preserving our forests. Americans impacted by wildfires each year (212 million or nearly 65 percent of the country’s population) deserve better.”

Call me old-fashioned, but $22.6 billion sounds like a lot of money. But so does 65 percent of the United States’ population being affected by wildfire.

Scarier yet is the number of homes, subdivisions, even whole towns burned to cinders by wildfires. In the past 30-plus years, that number has skyrocketed. And it’s expected to get worse.

“Under current federal agencies’ practices,” say Auchterlonie and Lehman, “wildfires now place 46 million residences in 70,000 communities at risk. Two-thirds of the country face the threat of large, long-duration wildfires. As the wildland-urban interface (WUI) expands due to expected population growth in the next twenty-five years, some experts predict a 50 percent increase in wildfire acreage consumed by 2050.”

To which they add: “[T]he last update to federal interagency wildfire fighting was in 2009. It excludes any mention of prioritizing early wildfire extinguishment.” Instead it focuses on thinning and prescribed burning. The authors say, “A put-the-fire-out-first strategy should be fundamental.”

“Annual devastation from wildfires requires an immediate, laser-focused, and warlike response. Study after study shows aggressive wildfire initial response within the first few hours of ignition minimizes the likelihood of more devastating and intensive wildfires.”

Then there’s the smoke problem. Wildfires in the United States produce approximately 10 percent of the global wildfire greenhouse gas emissions each year, say the authors. “Wildfires across the globe produce twice the CO2 as all commercial airline flights in the world in 2019, and about 60 percent of emissions from automobiles. While the economic cost to the environment caused by wildfires has not been ‘quantified,’ it is substantial and ‘one more reason to expeditiously extinguish them.'”

Therein lies a very old problem: How to quickly and completely extinguish a wildfire after it has escaped initial attack and burned thousands, or tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of acres of wildland. It soon emerges in Running Out of Time that the answer is to have more airtankers. A lot more. “[T]he government should purchase a fleet of 200 SEATs, 75 to 125 large airtankers (LATs), and 30 to 50 very large airtankers (VLATs).” And more helicopters and bulldozers, too.

Oh, and another thing: “Fight wildfire twenty-four hours a day.” While this poke in the eye is primarily for the U.S. Forest Service, the authors also note that quite a few state and municipal firefighting agencies engage fires quickly and work as productively as possible around the clock. Some even own night-flying helicopters — but they also have trouble with a small number of their fires, which too often become landscape-gobbling, home-wrecking wildfires.


While their airtanker buying recommendation is an alarming, blow-your-hair-back shopping list, Messrs. Auchterlonie and Lehman go into considerable detail to illustrate their position on how to pull this off. They propose a top-to-bottom reconfiguration of many (perhaps all) federal agencies to make them more efficient. The authors are, after all, business consultants who have helped large corporations with turnarounds and mergers, and were consultants to the likes of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. They have 80 years of combined experience in the private sector and government. They know how to strip large corporations down to the bone and build them back better.

An admirable amount of research went into this book, and it is notable that the focus is on finding a better way for keeping that small percentage of wildfires that escape initial attack from becoming destructive megafires. Granted, working firefighters and managers may not be the target audience — although many could benefit from reading the book. I suspect city planners, homebuilders, elected officials, and members of the news media could learn a great deal from Running out of Time. It’s also a good book for the public — the people who know or suspect that they live in a wildfire-prone area.

Wildfire remains a dizzying, frightening mystery to millions of people. This book may not assuage their fears, but at least they’ll understand considerably better what they’re up against — and maybe take away some small hope that two guys who have never dug an inch of fireline do know how to fix it.

Published by Amplify Publishing Group
Copyright ©2023 by the authors and Crowbar Research Insights LLC
Edition reviewed: Hardcover (publisher-supplied) 403 pages. $34.95
The book is also available in paperback and kindle editions.