‘Like Nagasaki’: devastating wildfires will only get worse, new book warns
The wildfire that barrelled towards the northern Canadian city of Fort McMurray in 2016 was far more destructive and ferocious than anything anyone had ever seen. The apocalyptic blaze vaporized buildings, moving so fast it seemed gasoline had been poured on the ground. Twinkling embers that fell from the sky ignited anything they touched.
The fire, dubbed The Beast, proved to be Canada’s costliest natural disaster, totalling more than $9bn in damages. It obliterated much of the city’s infrastructure and displaced thousands of residents
All of the forecasts and hourly weather information about a wildfire approaching Fort MacMurray in 2016 were correct. But even though officials took the fire seriously, there is little they could have done, said writer John Vaillant.
“Officials based their response on prior experience. But no one could quite believe how fast that fire moved,” he said. “And what climate change is promising us and showing us over and over again, are things we’ve never seen before.”
The world has entered an unprecedented era of wildfire danger, Vaillant argues in his upcoming book Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World which chronicles the devastation of Fort McMurray and warns of a hotter, more volatile future. The book comes at a grim milestone for the province of Alberta, as officials issue a state of emergency and thousands flee large blazes – the worst start to the season since 2016.
On Monday, the province’s premier requested federal assistance as more than two dozen wildfires burned out of control. More than 30,000 residents have been forced to flee their homes and sustained hot weather is expected to remain in the province for at least a week, complicating efforts to combat the fires.
“There is no question that this is a challenging time,” said premier Danielle Smith. “Tens of thousands of people have been forced from their homes and their jobs. They’re leaving behind all they own.”
Already, nearly 350,000 hectares have burned in the province this year – far greater than the 800 hectare average.
Alberta is no stranger to wildfires, fighting thousands of blazes each summer. The biggest fire ever measured in North America was Alberta in 1950. But in his book Vaillant describes a new type of wildfire, one that burns hotter, larger and more aggressively – and is becoming increasingly common.
“Fires are natural. What isn’t natural is something that cauterizes the landscape. Entire houses, 50-tonne objects, volatilize [convert into combustible gases] in five minutes,” he said.
Boreal forests, which span much of the northern hemisphere, have historically been a damp biome, full of bogs, creeks and swamps. But for decades, a climate trending towards warmer, drier summers means many of those wet areas have dried up, leaving a tinder-like ecosystem.
Vast swaths of burnable forest and land collide with the reality that when the larger, more unwieldy fires burn, they can create their own weather systems, called pyrocumulonimbus clouds. In 2017, fires in British Columbia and Washington state produced five simultaneous pyrocumulonimbi, which eventually joined into one weather system.
The next year, Vaillant witnessed a rare and incredibly powerful fire tornado in Redding, California.
“It was like looking at Nagasaki. I’ve never seen destruction like that. It was profound. It was absolutely shocking. And most people have never seen it. They can’t envision it, they don’t understand it.”
In places where fire is a common part of the landscape, bigger blazes are happening with greater frequency. California’s 10 biggest fires ever have been in the last two years.
Even places that don’t normally experience wildfires are seeing their skies clouded with ash. In 2017, Greenland experienced a rare wildfire.
“It’s a polar ice cap, surrounded by tundra that’s only exposed for a few weeks a year. Fires like that have never happened,” said Vaillant. That same year, every single European country had wildfires. “That’s also never happened. There’s a ton of firsts – but they’re all the wrong kind of firsts.”
Vaillant’s previous books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, have looked at the complex and often destructive effects humans have on the natural world. In Fire Weather, he describes how fire has long underpinned global societies, protecting, comforting and feeding humans for thousands of years. But no amount of human-made fires comes close to the vast scale of burning fossil fuels in the present day.
“Fire is complicated. And we have to be able to deal with the fact that that little blue flame on the stove is the same chemical reaction that has driven 30,000 people out of their homes in Alberta over the past couple of days.”
As cities bear the growing cost of the climate crisis, Vaillant warns society has been “lulled through spectacular engineering … and disingenuous marketing” into a sense of ease and comfort with all the widespread fossil fuel combustion.
Few cities represent that clash more than Fort McMurray, a city of wealth and industrial power set deep in the hinterlands of Canada’s west and an oil industry that has seen first-hand the devastation wrought a from a highly flammable landscape.
“This is a city of winners and conquerors. They do everything that they set out to do and have more heavy equipment than probably just about anywhere on Earth. If you want to change the planet, you can do it in Fort McMurray,” he said.
That change is a sprawling series of scars etched deep into the face of the earth, part of industry’s relentless push for more oil. The oil sands operations, which use heavy machinery to mine the landscape for bitumen and steam to extract oil, is visible from space.
“If a city as wealthy and well equipped and as far north as Fort McMurray can burn like that, when there’s still ice on the riverbanks, and ice on the local lakes, then a fire like this could probably burn anywhere,” he said.