Saturday, June 15, 2024

Fire Weather by John Vaillant

Fire Weather by John Vaillant is a compelling work of nonfiction subtitled A True Story From a Hotter World. Vaillant writes about the May 3, 2016 fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, a community of 88,000 people. 

There had been a fire burning outside of town and at an 11:00AM news conference on the 3rd, people were told to go about their lives, but be prepared. Shortly after the press conference, the weather-aided fire reached a point known as "crossover," with it in the tree canopies. The wildfire manager was giving an interview on air at 12:30, which he hustled out of when he saw how the smoke had changed. By 2:05, the first neighborhood evacuation order came and by 2:30, the fire was in the neighborhoods and streets. By 7:00, the entire city was under a mandatory evacuation order. 

Vaillant makes the statement about what people expected the fire to do of "it happens every year. which was true until it wasn't." People couldn't consider events they weren't familiar with. The worst-case scenario wasn't really the worst case, rather it was the worst case they knew about happening previously. Mention was made in the book of Nassim Taleb and his book The Black Swan, as well as the Lucretius Problem, where people have trouble imaging and assimilating things outside their personal experience. Vaillant references how the 9/11 Commission Report noted that the most important failures was one of imagination. 

Covered in the book are two people that were able to picture the worst-case scenario. Father and son firefighter Jamie and Ryan Coutts from the small town of Slave Lake had five years before seen more than a third of the houses in their town burned down in a matter of hours. They had a much more accurate view of what the fire could and likely would do than Fort McMurray officials, and they knew traditional firefighting methods wouldn't work. Entire houses were being consumed in three minutes during the peak flashover stage of the fire. What worked in combatting the fire was to see how quickly it spreading through a neighborhood, and then take down a house five houses in front of the fire, pushing it into its own basement, making it so there no fuel when the fire got there. Only by destroying a house would they have a chance of saving others. 

Incredibly, it seems there were no fatalities in the fire, but the city was closed for a month, with residents allowed back in early June. Nearly 100,000 people were forced to flee in what remains the largest single-day evacuation in the history of modern fire. More than 2,500 homes and other structures were destroyed, and 2,300 square miles of forest burned. The Fort McMurray Fire became the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, and burned for months, with it not being declared fully extinguished until August of the following year. Its behavior was entirely new, with towering pyrocumulus clouds, those usually seen over volcanoes, formed over the fire. There's also solid content about the town of Fort McMurray, oil industry in Alberta, and the impact of climate change on fires, the increased numbers of them globally and their behavior and impact. Covered are the fire tornados in Canberra, Australia in 2003, and then in 2018 in Redding, CA. 

The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides

The Wide Wide Sea by Hampton Sides is a solid book subtitled Imperial Ambition, First Contact and the Fateful Final Voyage of Captain James Cook. The book jacket notes how it an examination of the complexities and consequences of the Age of Exploration and Sides covers the trip Cook started in London on July 12, 1776, then his death two and a half years later on Hawaii.

The main point of the voyage was for Cook, leading the Resolution and the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke, in a search for a Northwest Passage, something that would enable ships to sail from London to the Pacific over the pole, a hypothetical route much shorter than going around Africa. The expedition went around the Cape of Good Hope, then stopped in the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean, Tasmania, New Zealand, and Tahiti (where a Tahitian, Mai, who had gone to England, was dropped off). The two ships than happened across Hawaii, and after reaching the Pacific coast, went up through the northwest, not going into the Columbia River Bar, then British Columbia, and Alaska, where Cook in 1778 explored Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet as he searched for a way over the top of North America back to England. He continued north around Alaska and was stymied by the ice pack, and chose to return to Hawaii for the winter, rather than stay in Russia.

Cook's plan was to return to Alaska early the following year and continue searching for the elusive, and nonexistent, Northwest Passage. Returning to Hawaii culminated in his death, though, and it was fascinating reading how his arrival there fulfilled a prophecy, with how he arrived in the middle of an extended period of ceremony locals were having to welcome their God, Lono, including Cook coming into the harbor in the exact direction Lono was foretold to come from. The story of his death is an interesting one as while he was first feted as a perceived God, the locals began to realize he likely wasn't Lono. They expected him to not be there after the duration of the ceremony ended, and then when Cook and his men left for Alaska, they ran into trouble with the ship and returned, not something expected of an infallible God. A small boat from one of the vessels was taken by locals, and Cook formed a plan to kidnap the local chief until it was returned, leading to his murder. 

The ships returned to Russia and left word of Cook's death to travel across the continent to England. Then the two vessels arrived in London October 7, 1780, 1,548 days after departure. It's a good book from Sides, an interesting travelogue with great history told well.

Saturday, June 01, 2024

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live by Paul Kix

You Have to Be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live by Paul Kix is an excellent work of nonfiction subtitled Ten Weeks in Birmingham that Changed America. Kix starts the book talking about what it was like for he and his wife Sonya as an interracial couple with kids in 2020, when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, MN by Police Officer Derek Chauvin. Kix focuses on a pivotal place and period of time in 1963, where the events in Birmingham, AL helped bring about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and provides fascinating reading of the inflection points that triggered events happening. 

In January 1963, leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) met in Savannah, GA. Participants including Wyatt Walker, Fred Shuttleworth, James Bevel, and Martin Luther King Jr. met to plan a campaign to end segregation in the city of Birmingham, led by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor. The SCLC had suffered a defeat in an effort in Albany, GA, where police recognized the need to not be seeing being brutal to blacks, neutralizing any public story. SCLC leaders intended to model the nonviolence shown by Ghandi, and shock America into changing. They planned a four-stage effort, starting with sit-ins at businesses, and then a boycott of the downtown business district by black citizens. The third stage was to be a protest march, and fourth much larger marches that would come from people seeing the brutality suffered by protestors and joining them en masse. The plan was contingent upon white people heaping abuse, and black people taking it and not fighting back.

The ten-week campaign started out known as Project X, for X marking the spot of confrontation, and transitioned into Project C, for confrontation. Money was needed for the effort and covered in the book is famous people like Harry Belafonte trying to raise for the cause, and Fred Shuttlesworth at a fundraiser in New York uttered the line the book title came from, with this helping raise $475K that night for the campaign. Things got off to a slow start, without a huge amount of support from the black community in Birmingham, as to be involved was to risk their livelihoods, freedom, and safety. The SCLC needed to antagonize Bull Connor and others in position of white power in order to have images of brutality captured and broadcast by the press. At first Connor was holding back, but then he resorted to violence, unleashing police dogs on marchers, leading to the famous photograph from May 3 of a police dog appearing to lunge at a young black man, Walter Gadsen. 

An injunction was issued saying that the black community couldn’t march or they would go to jail, and while daunting, this proved to be a trigger helping the effort be successful. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march, was arrested, and wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail, which would become famous as a rallying cry for the cause. Then there was an outreach to black youth in Birmingham, enlisting them to march, and in one day, 973 children were arrested and jailed. The news showed the arrests and attacks on black marchers, with fire hoses spraying down children. This garnered national attention, including from Bobby and John F. Kennedy in the White House, and in Birmingham, some numbers of firefighters became unwilling to spray black children for simply marching and singing.  On May 6 there had been over 4,000 arrests, 2,500 of them children. Eventually the city of Birmingham backed down from some of its racist actions, and the brokering of segregation in the city then spread to other cities. As the eventual Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being put together, Kennedy himself said to black leaders, “but for Birmingham, we wouldn’t be here today.”