FIRE WEATHER Reviews: Two perspectives, similar conclusions

#1 CANADIAN NATIONAL BESTSELLER • WINNER OF THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE FOR NONFICTION • SHORTLISTED FOR THE HILARY WESTON WRITERS’ TRUST PRIZE FOR NONFICTION • FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN NONFICTION • ONE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES’ TOP TEN BOOKS OF THE YEAR 

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 CBC.ca, 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.


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Burnout

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.


Ballou
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.

Appeals commission rejects British Columbia landowner’s claim of neighbor arson, sticks him with $450K bill

Clarke Matthiesen claimed his neighbors’ grandson caused the 2019 fire that originated on his property, and not his unregistered burn, according to the CBC News.

It took B.C. Wildfire Service crews two weeks to contain the fire that  started as a holdover from Matthiesen’s debris burn. He’s now on the hook for about $450,000 after an appeals commission rejected his claim that his neighbors’ grandson started the fire. The Forest Appeals Commission dismissed his appeal, finding that his explanation was “both unproven and unlikely.”
British Columbia Fire Service photo
British Columbia Fire Service photo

Investigators had concluded that a holdover fire from an improperly extinguished open burn of Matthiesen’s was the cause. The burn covered around 224 square metres — under 2500 square feet —  and a holdover fire can smolder underground for days or even months. “The burning of a large debris pile, as in this case, is inherently risky and can result in significant destruction if wildfires result from the burning. It is the responsibility of those engaged in such burning activity to ensure they have met the legislated requirements,” the appeals decision says.

The wildfire burned for about two weeks some 150 kilometres west of Quesnel, B.C. Matthiesen was ordered to pay $179,344 for damage to Crown resources, $260,369 for the cost of fighting the fire, $7,546 for reforestation costs, and a $2,350 administrative penalty.

Matthiesen hadn’t raised his arson theory with any officials or investigators in the four years before his appeal. He did not have a burn permit for the fire he started, and had no firefighting tools or water nearby as required. An investigator said Matthiesen’s burn pile included root wads from trees, which are often involved in holdover fires.

“The appellant was unaware of the degree of risk posed by holdover fires, the appropriate way to check for hotspots, or the need to maintain a fuel break even after the initial burning phase,” the decision says.

Matthiesen is one of the latest people ordered to pay huge fines under a section of provincial law that allows the government to recover suppression costs from those responsible for starting wildfires. In another recent case, another man was billed for another 2019 fire, according to another CBC News report.

A northwest British Columbia resident was billed more than $100,000 to cover the province’s cost of a fire that started on his property four years ago. Eldon Whalen was ordered to pay $100,688 for a fire that spread from a burn pile on his property in the Kispiox Valley northwest of Prince George.

The open fire was deliberately ignited, and if not for the response of the B.C. Wildfire Service, the impacts would likely have been even more widespread, according to the decision from B.C.’s Forest Appeals Commission.

Sheriff STILL investigating arrest of burn boss

It’s been just over a year since the Grant County Sheriff in eastern Oregon kicked over a hornets’ nest and made national headlines by arresting and handcuffing a Forest Service burn boss for “reckless burning” while he was directing a planned and active prescribed fire. And the case is still under investigation.

“It is wrapping up,” Sheriff Todd McKinley recently told the Blue Mountain Eagle. He said he plans to forward the investigation to the district attorney “in the near future.”

On Oct. 19, 2022, Ricky Snodgrass was overseeing the Starr 6 Burn in Bear Valley, on the Malheur National Forest about 17 miles south of John Day and 7 miles north of Seneca, when embers blew over the Izee-Paulina Highway and scorched 15 or 20 acres of private land belonging to the family-owned Holliday Ranch.
Holliday Ranch in Grant County, Oregon
Red angus on the Holliday Ranch in Grant County, Oregon

Snodgrass, 39, was the USFS burn boss managing the 300-acre Rx fire — the second Malheur NF burn within about two weeks — and those on the fire included not only federal crews but also Grayback contract crews and Oregon Department of Forestry personnel.

Burn Boss arrest: Starr 6 RxFire
19. October 2022 — Burn Boss arrest: Starr 6 RxFire in Grant County, Oregon

Landowners called the sheriff to report the burn had started a spot fire and was “out of control.” With the burn underway and with long-running tensions escalating between the property owners and fire crews, Snodgrass also called the county sheriff — to help control aggressive traffic and to deal with harassment his crews had been subjected to. Much to Snodgrass’ surprise, McKinley arrested him on “suspicion of reckless burning” — and took him away in handcuffs while the fire was still burning.

Timothy hay on the eastern Oregon Holliday Ranch.
Timothy hay on the eastern Oregon Holliday Ranch.

Firefighters who remained on the job brought the private land slopover under control in about an hour; they also maintained control of the prescribed burn on national forest land.

Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley
Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley

Snodgrass was driven to the county jail, where he was officially booked and then quickly released.

The Starr 6 Burn very quickly hit the news and ignited controversy — far beyond Oregon and the wildland fire community. The story was picked up by news organizations  including the Washington Post, The Guardian, NBC News, ABC News, Reuters, and others.

It was one of the first prescribed fires initiated after new restrictions and guidelines were established in early 2022 — rules that followed a 90-day stop-work after New Mexico prescribed fires escaped — the Calf Canyon – Hermit’s Peak fire burned several hundred thousand acres and hundreds of structures early in 2022.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore quickly vowed he would “not stand idly by” after this first-ever arrest, and that he and others would defend USFS employees. The head of the NFFE union said the sheriff interfered with a federal employee in the course of his duties.

Since his arrest a year ago, Ricky Snodgrass has been waiting to hear whether he might face criminal charges in Grant County. District Attorney Jim Carpenter will consider several possible options, depending on the evidence collected and how he assesses it.

Sheriff McKinley also may find out he’s been charged with a crime. Firefighters at the burn during the arrest warned the sheriff that if he detained the burn boss, who was in the middle of conducting a prescribed fire and acting in an official capacity in command of the personnel and their safety and also that of neighboring county residents, he could face charges of obstructing a federal employee during the performance of duties.

McKinley recently told the Blue Mountain Eagle that he doesn’t know whether charges might be filed against him. “I haven’t even been talked to,” he said.


Tony Chiotti, ace reporter with the Blue Mountain Eagle in John Day, wrote this in-depth report after the arrest, re-published on 10/26/22 by WildfireToday.

U.S. must shift from ‘reactive to proactive’ to manage wildfire crisis

The U.S. faces a wildfire crisis that costs the federal government $2.5 billion a year — a crisis that a recent report [PDF] concluded the feds can’t face alone.

President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021 created the federal Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission and charged it with recommending improvements to federal agencies’ management of wildfire across the landscape. The commission was tasked with creating new policy recommendations to address the wildfire crisis.

The commission released the culmination of its efforts in September, and it includes numerous proposed changes that forest managers and wildland firefighters have been suggesting for decades. The commission ultimately found that many of these changes are needed soon to adequately reduce the risk of wildfires throughout the U.S.

“The Commission urges Congress to take swift action to advance the holistic solutions needed to reduce the risk of wildfire to the nation,” the report says. “Only through comprehensive action can we hope to prepare for the wildfires of today and, critically, the wildfires of tomorrow.”

The commission listed 148 recommended changes in its report, which focused on eight points:

    • Shift focus from fire response to pre-fire planning and risk mitigation
    • Treat the wildfire crisis as a public health crisis
    • Unify local and federal resources
    • Improve community and ecosystem resilience in post-fire areas
    • Increase pay and hiring for wildland firefighters
    • Update the fire management system with current technology
    • Significantly increase investments to reduce long-term costs and risks
    • Enhance work across jurisdictions

“Rather than selecting one or more potential recommendations to carry forward for implementation, the Commission urges audiences of this report to take an ‘all of the above’ approach,” the report says. “There is no single solution to the wildfire crisis; the scale of the issues necessitates solutions that are integrated, comprehensive, and broad in scope. The urgency of this need cannot be overstated.”

September 2012 Mustang Complex, Idaho -- Kari Greer photo
Black Mountain Hotshots, September 2012 Mustang Complex, Idaho      — Kari Greer photo

The suggestions were similar to another report released in September by the National Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee, which also recommended that Congress increase investment in wildland firefighters along with hiring and pay.

Firefighters need a raise in pay

Federal firefighters have for years put up with both low pay — starting at just $15 an hour for entry-level positions — and a high-pressure job that takes a heavy toll mentally and keeps them away from their homes and families. Hundreds of them have left federal service, and hundreds more will likely leave next month if a permanent federal pay increase is not approved by Congress.

This fall, as reported by The Guardian, pay issues are coming to a head. A temporary pay increase, effected as part of Biden’s 2021 infrastructure bill, will expire at the end of September. Without that pay increase, the U.S. risks  a crisis of firefighter burnout and falling retention while fires increasingly burn larger, hotter, and for longer than they have in decades.

Lone Peak Hotshots, Cerro Pelado Fire, northern New Mexico. 2022 inciweb photo.
Lone Peak Hotshots, Cerro Pelado Fire, northern New Mexico. 2022 inciweb photo.

Congress has two weeks to enact a long-term fix. If they fail, federal land management agencies may be left to navigate another mass exodus from the essential workforce just as autumn winds increase risks across the West.

As the Federal News Network recently reported, wildland firefighters are meeting with congressional leaders this week to add urgency to pending legislation that would install a permanent pay raise. The $600 million that funded the two-year pay boost runs out at the end of September.

Back in July, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters launched a petition to tell Congress what’s at stake if they don’t enact a permanent pay solution. In just a week, more than 11,000 wildland firefighters and others signed their names and described what will happen if Congress fails to act. A sample of signers’ responses:

    • “30-50% of the firefighting force will leave unless signed, including myself. I have bills to pay, I love this job but unless things change, I can’t afford to do it.”
    •  “I worry that with this pay cut we will lose our hard-working wildland firefighters, and the land that so many of us love and recreate in will be unprotected and destroyed.”
    •  “One third of the permanent fire employees I know will have to leave the wildland fire profession to pay their mortgage.”
    •  “As a fire family, this would hit us hard. These men and women who battle fires daily to prevent homes from being burned deserve the most.”
    •  “Thousands of firefighters walking off the job. Many of us are planning for what happens if they do nothing.”
    •  “15 years of firefighting and my nephew makes more working at Panda Express. It’s time to recognize our firefighters for what they do and the sacrifice they have put forth to protect public lands.”

“Firefighters don’t want accolades, they don’t need to be called heroes,” says Riva Duncan, a retired USFS fire officer and vice-president of the Grassroots Wildland Firefighters advocacy group. “But they want to at least be treated like they are appreciated for the risks they take and the sacrifices they make.”

ZigZag Hotshots crewmember sharpens chainsaw on Moose Fire, July 24, 2022 by Mike McMillan-USFS
ZigZag Hotshots crewmember sharpens chainsaw on Moose Fire, July 24, 2022 by Mike McMillan-USFS

Biden’s temporary pay bump — which added either $20,000 or a 50 percent increase to firefighter paychecks, whichever was less — was intended as a short-term fix to buy Congress time to pass a permanent solution to the problems that have for years left federal firefighters underpaid and overworked.

The National Federation of Federal Employees, the union that represents many wildland firefighters, said without a permanent solution, there will be a “mass exodus” of firefighters, which would only exacerbate retention challenges that are already increasingly difficult for the four  Department of the Interior agencies and the Forest Service; all five agencies employ roughly 17,000 wildland firefighters combined.


That story in the Guardian, by Gabrielle Canon, is WELL WORTH the read — and thanks to Nancy for the tip.

Without the passage of new legislation, federal firefighters will see major reductions to their paychecks starting October 1. Some workers’ pay will be cut back to $15 per hour. … California lawmakers, by the way, just passed a bill that would make $20 an hour the minimum pay for fast-food workers in the state. You can sign the Grassroots petition to Congress [HERE].