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.