Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World, with John Vaillant

Jul 19, 2023 59 min listen

Skies turned saffron-colored and smoke blanketed parts of the Midwest and Northeast this summer as Americans experienced the impact of fires raging in Canada. The 2023 Canadian fire season has been record-breaking with nearly 3,500 new fires—significantly above the ten-year average—with about 600 active fires and over half "out of control."

In this virtual event, John Vaillant, author of Fire Weather: A True Story From A Hotter World, joins Doorstep co-host Tatiana Serafin to discuss how we have created a climate where fires thrive: a new "century of fire."

Fire Weather Doorstep book talk Spotify podcast link Fire Weather Doorstep book talk podcast link

TATIANA SERAFIN: Hello, everyone, and thank you so much for joining us on this, at least in New York City, particulate day with some residual smell and heat in the air. We are joined today to talk about what this is, what this means, and what our future holds with John Vaillant, author of Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World. Thank you so much for joining us, John.

John is a journalist and an acclaimed writer who spent many months digging into what our new weather patterns mean, and I think we all see it in the headlines, John. Today I opened up The New York Times, and they have a graphic of how the Canadian wildfires started and what it means. France 24 is talking about “Extreme heat sparks wildfires, health warnings around the world.” If you just look at some of these headlines. In Florida, “Swimmers encounter an ocean that feels like ‘steamy syrup.’” It is everywhere.

When I chose to read this book it was from a little bookstore here in Manhattan called The Corner Bookstore. They were highlighting this book, and I thought, Wow, this is so prescient and relevant, because in June here in New York City we had orange skies related to fires coming out of Quebec, and I thought, Wow, everybody needs to read this this summer.

As we are going into the middle of July with heat indexes around the world rising, this is more relevant than ever. Thank you for writing this book. Thank you for writing it so beautifully. Welcome to The Doorstep here at Carnegie Council.

JOHN VAILLANT: Thank you, Tatiana. I heard about the show, and I am so glad to be on it and to meet you in person almost.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Almost. John, I would like to start out reading a passage, if you don’t mind. I know it is not you reading it. I did not give you a head’s up, but I want to read this particular section because we need to understand how we got here and what is “fire weather.” I think what you say in the book is that: “This is not a planet Earth as we found it. This is a new place, a fire planet that we have made.”

It is so important I think to talk about what you call here, and what I think more people need to be speaking out, the “Petrocene” age. Here on my page 231 you write: “The Petrocene Age has enabled ordinary people to command energy in ways kings and sultans could only dream of and with an ease hitherto unimaginable.”

Can you talk more about that, because that frame of the Petrocene Age and where we are compared to where we have been in the past is so much of the book and so important as we start this conversation today?

JOHN VAILLANT: Thanks. The Petrocene refers to petroleum, specifically to the liquid fuel that is so central to the life and lifestyle that so many of us lead around the world now.

We think about it as petroleum, but what we really have to go back to is this idea of fire. Petroleum is interesting to us only because it burns. We would not go to the great lengths we go to to suck it out of the seabed, mine it out of the boreal forest in Canada, or drill it out of the Saudi desert if it did not burn. We call it an “energy industry,” “fossil fuel industry,” and “oil and gas industry,” but at its root, at the bottom, it is a fire industry, and our civilization is a fire-driven civilization at this moment, and it has been for the past 150 years or so.

Fire is so central to our lives that it is hard to package it neatly because it has always been with us. It has enabled us to become who we are and how we are. I have thought about our early relationship to fire in terms of the hearth fire in the cave, we are cooking over it and we are illuminating the darkness with it. The darkness was a big part of the day, it was a menacing part of the day often, and fire changed that. Fire gave us eyes in the dark like a tiger. It evened the playing field.

In this way I think of it as the same way we domesticated wolves and made them pet dogs that protected us, could smell and hear better than we can, could hunt for us, could help keep us warm at night, and keep us actual company. Dogs might be on our right side, fire on the left. We also domesticated fire. It has also been our “boon companion,” you could say, that has enabled us to see and reach further, to feel safer, and to feel physically and I think psychologically and emotionally warmer. It is cozy on top of everything else that it does. That is our history with fire.

Then when we discovered and mastered liquid petroleum around 1870 and started to incorporate it into our lives first through lighting, through illumination, through the kerosene lamp industry, and then into combustive energy steadily replacing coal first in boilers and then in internal combustion engines, we were able to amplify ourselves and manifest ourselves on Earth in a way that no one ever has before. So the idea of an ordinary person, a factory worker, driving a car across the country, sitting in relative comfort, was unheard of when you think of the history of civilization. You might have been able to do that on horseback, but even to be able to afford the time, to afford the fuel, petroleum changed all that for us and gave millions, in fact billions, of us an opportunity to access this incredible energy in what at first seemed like an affordable way.

I think what we are seeing now is that there were hidden costs, and that is what we are reckoning with now. When you talk about the fires, the smoke, and the heat of the ocean it is closing in on us now. It is not just something that happened in Australia, it is not just something that happened off the coast of Bangladesh. We are seeing extraordinarily hot water in the Gulf of Mexico. We are seeing it off the coast of Ireland. We are seeing fires in Switzerland. We are seeing the biggest fires ever in Canada right now. It is almost a pan-Canadian series of fires that we are dealing with now that is essentially unheard of in modern history, and that is a short list. The list is much longer. Open a newspaper or open a magazine now, and it is front and center for us.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think in the book you make the case that that pace of change has been caused by us, that this is very much a problem that would not exist without what we have done.

I want to make sure that our audience reckons with this. We here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs often think about ethics and choices. That is something you mention briefly in the book that has not come into play with some of this reckoning.

Since you mention the word “reckoning,” you write on page 231: “Reckoning with the negative aspects of oil and gas is a responsibility that duplicitous marketing, short-term governance, superb engineering, and a certain amount of willful blindness have enabled us to keep at bay for a century.”

Can you talk about some of these factors that have accelerated our obsession with fire?

JOHN VAILLANT: We also have to recognize the genius of petroleum and the genius of the industry. This is a question I asked when I was in Calgary, which is like the Houston of Canada. It is in Alberta, a very oil-intensive place. When I was there, people thought, Oh, this guy is going to come here and he wants to beat up on our industry.

I asked them, “When was the last time you ran out of gas that was not your fault?” I have been around for a long time. I have been in line for gas a couple of times during some political upheavals. I have never run out of gas when it was not my fault.

There is an incredible system of supply and distribution, and that involves a whole lot of people all around the world showing up every day to make it happen, and we have to acknowledge that, we have to honor that, and I think we have to show gratitude for that.

At the same time, on the other hand, we have to also look at the fact that when you burn petroleum-driven fire for 150 years relentlessly at every opportunity around the world 24/7 there are going to be impacts, and CO2 and particulate pollution is one of those impacts, and when you do it on the scale we have, one could say “as successfully” as we have, you are going to see effects.

We want to look at the positives, all the ways that petroleum has empowered us and has frankly enriched us, but really it has done so at the expense of the future. We borrow against the future health of the planet and against the stability of our atmosphere, so as we burn literally billions—I have counted it actually; we light trillions of fires per day when you count each combustion in a car engine—trillions of fires per day, so galaxies of fires made by human beings every single day, emitting emissions, CO2, into our atmosphere, and our atmosphere is a fairly closed system. It is kind of like how some people like to talk about Las Vegas: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” What happens in our atmosphere stays in our atmosphere.

The CO2 stays there. The car I drove back in the 1980s, those emissions are still somewhere in the atmosphere. They might have gone into the ocean, they might have weathered into limestone, or they may still be influencing the heat-retaining characteristics of our atmosphere, which has made the word tangibly, palpably, and dangerously hotter and thus more conductive to fire of an uncontrolled kind.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I was talking about this to a friend yesterday, and she called it an “unnatural” disaster, that we have perpetuated these unnatural disasters to a scale where—we can talk about it in a second—we might not know how to handle them.

Since you started with CO2 I want to stick with that, because you spend part of your book discussing about how maybe now we are talking about it more but how even oil and gas companies in the 1970s knew—climate science you point out has been around for a century—but they chose not to deal with these things. Can we talk a little bit about that?

JOHN VAILLANT: This is something that has perplexed and intrigued me. Again we need to go back to the fact that—take Exxon, for example, or Shell. These are these 130-to-150-year-old companies that are global, very well run, and are able to attract the best talent. They are extraordinary entities. One of the things that they are able to do is attract really good scientists. In the 1970s people began to understand: Wow, CO2 is a really important ingredient in our atmosphere and it actually has heat-retaining characteristics. This was understood as early as the 1850s. A pioneering climate scientist named Eunice Foote from Upstate New York did this pioneering experiment, so people have known, scientists have known—chemists, physicists, and atmospheric scientists—about this for a very long time, but we did not have the instruments to test and measure it accurately until around the 1950s, so a hundred years later.

By the 1960s petroleum companies were realizing: Okay, we are in the fire business. We are in the energy business, but if we are going to be honest with ourselves, we are in the fire business, and therefore we are, whether we like it or not, we are also in the CO2 business. We are manufacturing CO2 in massive quantities every day and selling it to the general public.

They developed methods, earnestly studied, and tried to game out what CO2 might do in the future if we continued to burn fossil fuels as we were doing in the 1960s and expanded as economists, visionaries, and futurists predicted we would. In fact the science they did, the predictions those companies made, were excellent.

The most pernicious and sinister detail was that as early as the 1970s petroleum emissions scientists from Shell and Exxon understood that there was going to be a moment when the excess CO2 introduced by the petroleum industry and by our collective burning would start to influence climate in ways that broke through the “noise” of normal fluctuation and become directly identifiable. They predicted that that would happen around the year 2000, and they were exactly right. If you look at CO2 measurements, they climb steadily, but temperatures do not start breaking out of normal fluctuations until the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then we start seeing these spikes.

One of the things we also started seeing—less well-known to people with thermometers or scientists—is that fire began to change. Fire began to burn more intensely and more broadly, and we started to see phenomena including “fire tornadoes,” which had never been recorded anywhere. There is no historical record. There are no First Nations or native legends about fire tornadoes. Volcanoes are what produced these giant pyrocumulonimbus clouds. As of 2003, Australia had the first identifiable Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale-measured EF3 fire tornado, and that is a new terrifying 21st century energy, and that is just one of the manifestations of elevated CO2’s impact on climate. It does not just make it warmer; it makes it easier for fire to do what it really wants to do, which is to burn big, broad, and explosive.

In that way I noticed, Wow, it is really kind of similar to the way modern capitalism likes to manifest itself in terms of the way a large company has a big idea, wants to expand, wants to grow, and wants to move across a landscape in a very energetic but also consumptive way. I think that is interesting as a kind of side note, but the focus here is that there is something about our atmosphere that encourages intense bursts of energy, and that energy wants to keep manifesting itself, and one of the places where we are seeing that most graphically now is in the Canadian boreal forest, this huge, extremely flammable forest system that is now drier and hotter than it has ever been in many millennia.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is a nice segue into what I think is the heart of your book, which is the 2016 Fort McMurray fire. In your acknowledgements you mention that you went there after it happened to try to find out what happened. That leads nicely also into your discussion of fire and how it wants to burn. If we could talk about the “triangle of fire”—to go back to the basics—and how we, because of our fire obsession and these forces of capitalism, the oil and gas industry, have made this triangle more volatile.

JOHN VAILLANT: The fire triangle is fuel, heat, and landscape when talking about fire in terms of wildfire, in terms of forest fires. What a fire needs to burn is some heat. It has to have some fuel, which in a forest fire is generally trees, although houses are increasingly on the menu now along with cars, trucks, and anything else in the way that is remotely flammable, and then you need landscape, a terrain that is conducive to fire, and obviously an enormous muskeg bog full of water and damp soil is not going to burn very well nor will the Sahara Desert because there are no hydrocarbons there, no grass, trees, or brush. You need a flammable environment.

The thing about human beings is that that is where we like to live. We like to live around trees and plants. Trees and plants are hydrocarbons. Most of the houses that we live in are made from hydrocarbons. Wood is a hydrocarbon, but so is vinyl siding. So are tar shingles and rubber tires. These are all hydrocarbons, and we like to have those things. All hydrocarbons were once derived from a living thing. We are living things, and living things like to be around other living things.

Just over the top of my computer right now is a beautiful garden full of flowers. It gives me enormous peace and comfort, but all of those plants are hydrocarbons. They will burn if we dry them out, get them hot enough, and add a heat source and an ignition.

Ignition is the fourth ingredient to the heat triangle. You have your heat, your fuel, and your landscape, but you need the ignition. It might be a bolt of lightning, it could be a cigarette butt, or it could be the hot muffler on a motorcycle or an all-terrain vehicle. It could be any number of things. It does not really matter. The fire does not care. The fire just wants to have that chemical reaction.

When we think about fire, it is this orange or blue sprightly energy that is obviously hot and dangerous but cooks our food, keeps us warm, gives us a beautiful shower, and powers us around the world in unbelievable speed and great comfort, but it is actually a chemical reaction. That was hard for me to wrap my head around. I am not going to unpack the science of it here because it still crosses my eyes to think about it, but the bottom line is that we need the heat, we need the ignition, and we need the hydrocarbons, and then you have fire.

The boreal forest is less known to Americans, but to anybody in the far Northern Hemisphere—in Siberia that is the Taiga forest—that is boreal forest. “Boreal” means northern. It is a reference to the Greek god Boreas. So boreal is anything to do with the North. The boreal forest is this massive forest system. It is the largest terrestrial ecosystem biome, and it runs all the way around the Northern Hemisphere, all the way across Canada, across Alaska, all the way across Russia, all the way through the Scandinavian countries, touches down in Iceland, keeps going, hits Newfoundland, and then keeps going, completing the circle across Canada.

It is a fire-dependent ecosystem, and that seems counterintuitive: Smokey Bear says:, “Don’t light fires in the forest. Be safe.” One of the things we have done since World War II is become really good at suppressing wildfire. It is an out-of-control energy that makes a lot of smoke and it is dangerous. Human beings like to control their environment. I pull out weeds in my garden, mow the lawn, and do things some people think I probably should not be doing, but there are all these ways we want to manage, macro or micro, our environment to make it feel safer and more comfortable for us.

The boreal forest system, however, needs to burn in order to continue. There are species of tree, most notably black spruce, whose cones will not open until they are heated beyond temperatures achievable by sunlight alone. They have to burn, and that makes the cones pop and the seeds fall out, and what that tells the seed is: “okay, I got really hot. That means there has been a fire. That means I don’t have any competition right now because the old trees have been burned, the canopy is open, I have access to the sun and the water coming from the sky, and it is my turn now.” This is a random but regular cycle of return that occurs roughly every 50 to 150 years. Any tree in the boreal can expect to burn at some point.

This is normal. So people will say: “Hey, what’s the big deal? Fires are always burning in the boreal, and they are always big.” This is true. A 1,000-square mile fire, which would be front page news in Boston, New York, San Francisco, London, or Tokyo is a run-of-the-mill fire that nobody bothers reporting on in Northern Canada. It is huge up there. It is an enormous space.

What is different, and what made the Fort McMurray fire of 2016 so different, is that the normal temperature for the boreal forest in May is about 65°F, about 12°C. On May 3, 2016, it was about 91°, so it was over 30°C. It broke the standing heat record for that date by 10°F. That is very unusual, but that is happening all over the place. Right now in Italy they broke the previous extreme heat record—which was just set last year—by 2°C. That is an extraordinary leap to be making.

May 2016 was one of the first times when we saw the impacts of these big thermal atmospheric leaps with grave consequences because Fort McMurray had 90,000 people in it. It is a petroleum town that is the center of petroleum production in the entire nation of Canada.

Canada is the United States’ largest foreign supplier of petroleum products. Ninety percent of that comes out of Fort McMurray. On May 3, a massive boreal fire swept into and through the city of Fort McMurray, driving the largest evacuation due to fire in modern times. Ninety thousand people vacated that city in an afternoon with fires burning up to the breakdown lanes and huge rolling balls of combusting gas exploding over the road. It was absolutely apocalyptic, and it put the fear of God into people. It was the worst and most expensive natural or unnatural disaster in Canadian history, and it shut down the petroleum industry, which is a massive industry, with huge economic ramifications for Canada and by extension the United States because the United States imports so much from Canada.

This was a historic event. The city was shut down for an entire month. No other North American city has been “sidelined” like that, has been disinhabited like that besides New Orleans after Katrina. That is how bad it was.

Another way to think about it is Chernobyl after the meltdown. You go into people’s houses three weeks later, and there is a plate of food. People just got up from the table and bolted. That is how intense it was.

The flames were 100 to 300 feet high. What is important to understand about fire is that fire projects heat. It is called “radiant” heat. Radiant heat moves at the speed of light, so when you put your hand up near a candle, the energy that is coming off the candle into your hand is moving at the speed of light, and it is also telling you, “Don’t touch the candle.” So you had a large boreal fire with 100-200-foot flames and the radiant heat coming off that fire was 900°F, around 500°C. It is projecting this blistering explosive heat hundreds of meters ahead of it, so any tree, any house, any car, any person is instantly desiccated, is instantly dried, and reduced to its hydrocarbon flammable potential. So by the time the fire gets there everything is superheated to the point that the houses in Fort McMurray—which go for half a million or a million apiece; it is a very wealthy town—burnt to the ground in five minutes. They went from a freestanding home with no involvement to a burning basement in five minutes because the houses combusted in their entirety virtually instantly.

No firefighters present had seen anything like that. It was a new kind of energy, and this fire burned that way through the city of Fort McMurray not just for a terrible afternoon but day after day and night after night.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think you mentioned that it was only declared completely over 17 months later.

JOHN VAILLANT: Yes. The fire was not technically extinguished until August of 2017, the following year. The wildfire that came to be known as the “Horse River fire” or the “Fort McMurray fire” was not declared to be under control, that is, it could be kept it within its boundaries, until mid-July, so that was six weeks after it roared into the city of Fort McMurray.

By then the damage was done. The fire ultimately burned 2,300 square miles of landscape, including a lot of Fort McMurray. It shut down the whole petroleum industry there, the bitumen industry, also known as tar sands or oil sands. This is a multibillion-dollar industry. It was completely shut down. They had smoke for days and weeks very much like New York experienced recently and like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Vancouver have experienced in past years. It is patently unhealthy.

Many firefighters who worked in that fire, not only did they barely sleep because the fire burned day and night—it never calmed down as fires used to do; it stayed ferociously hot on a 24-hour time clock—but they worked in relentless those no-rest conditions on 24-, 48-, and 72-hour shifts, conditions where you are practically hallucinating because you are so tired, because the fire continued to burn with that same level of ferocity.

I think it was disorienting for people, and it is one reason they nicknamed this fire “the beast.” The Canadian subtitle of the book is "The Making of the Beast" and that term “the beast” has enormous resonance for Canadians now because this fire kept coming back into the city.

What a fire does typically is it sweeps through with the wind, and then it is gone and you deal with the wreckage left behind. The wind shifted on this fire, and it kept coming back. It was like it was not done yet, so day after day it would try a new angle as the wind shifted and as new fuel sources presented themselves. So it had this strangely motivated, animated, and intentional quality to it that made firefighters and the people observing it and studying it consider it in a different way.

TATIANA SERAFIN: In the book you mention a scene and you mention that the fire was like a velociraptor from Jurassic Park just trying to find another way in, which I thought was very visual. Your writing is amazing. It brings it to life. I mention this because you mention in the book the Lucretius Problem, the difficulty we have imagining things that we do not experience: “Oh, that’s happening in Canada,” and only until our sky turned orange here in New York City did we say, “What is happening in Canada?”

We were talking about the fire, but what was fascinating to me about what happened at Fort McMurray was on May 2, when people saw that there was a fire out there because they saw the smoke, but they went about their day, and public officials also said, “It’s okay, just go about your day.” I want to take us back to that beginning because that I found phenomenally frightening, and it really placed me in the moment.

JOHN VAILLANT: Thanks. That is a scene and a time period I grappled with because it was so significant.

One thing we have to say, and we have already said it, about the petroleum industry—great engineers, great scientists, incredible distribution. They are really good at what they do.

Who else is really good at what they do? Climate scientists and meteorologists. Climate scientists already understood basically by Christmas time or January 2016 that Alberta was going to have a big fire year in 2016. They could see there was an El Niño, they could see there was reduced snowpack, reduced precipitation, and they could see there was already a drought underway. Already the measureable impacts of CO2 in terms of elevated temperature and unseasonable temperature spikes was already in evidence, so they had that.

Then the meteorologists, who come in with more local, immediate weather, predicted record-breaking temperatures for May 1, 2, and 3. They predicted a wind shift that would blow into Fort McMurray on May 3. They also predicted what the relative humidity would be, the ambient humidity in the air, and that it would be 11 or 12 percent, which by the way is how dry Death Valley is. Death Valley is 2,000 km south of Fort McMurray. So we have Southern California desert humidity and Southern California desert temperatures in a boreal forest that is already explosively flammable under normal conditions. Well now it has been supercharged, and meteorologists predicted this.

The thing is, because boreal fires are not an uncommon feature of life around Fort McMurray firefighters know how to handle it, municipal firefighters were confident that they could take care of the city, and so they approached it as they had previous fires, and there had been some big previous fires, so they thought, We know what we are doing here.

Maybe a more accessible analog for Americans is that terrible blizzard in [December of last year] where 50 people were killed in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo is no stranger to blizzards. People know how to handle themselves in a blizzard, and yet meteorologists were saying: “No, this is not going to be just like any old blizzard. This is going to be a life-threatening event.” Indeed it was, and yet no driving ban was imposed, and people treated it and authorities thought of it as they had about blizzards in the past.

It was not that different in Fort McMurray except in this case it was a wildfire. What you do is you identify where the fire is, you bring out some water bombers, retardant bombers, bulldozers, and you plow out some firebreaks through the forest to create a barrier, but what they were not taking into account was the fact that when it is 90° instead of 65° and 11 percent humidity instead of 30 percent humidity, those embers blown by the fire and by the wind that was predicted are going to sail right over the tops of any retardant barrier you make or any firebreak you make. They are going to sail over anything you do.

One way to think about is: You have medieval warriors out on the battlefield going at it, the army defending the castle is doing a great job holding the fire at bay on the field, but back in the trees are the archers with their fire-tipped arrows, and they are just firing them right over the field of battle onto the rooftops of the village and the castle. That is exactly what happened.

So you have not just hundreds of arrows metaphorically speaking but tens of thousands, millions, of tiny embers sailing through this extraordinarily hot, dry air. So they don’t go out, they stay lit, just like that cigarette butt that you throw out the car window, all the way over the top of all the firefighting efforts, landing in people’s yards, and what everybody said who I spoke to, firefighter and civilian alike, is they could not believe how fast the fire moved.

What we have to think about is it is not just a boreal fire, it is not just a normal fire. When you heat everything up, when you dry everything out to extreme levels, the way the ground behaves, the way the fuel source, all those hydrocarbons—the trees, the grasses, the shrubs, the mulch on your garden that looks so pretty keeping weeds down—turns into fuses for fire.

The way that fire moved it did not look like, “Oh, this is an ember landing on my lawn and starting to smoulder.” This looked like someone sprayed gasoline all over my lawn and threw a cigarette into it. That is how fast the fire distributed itself through these neighborhoods.

Then you have temperatures that were literally comparable to the planet Venus, a place where nobody lives and nobody ever could. It is unspeakably hot here. That is how hot it was in these neighborhoods. Fire won’t burn on Venus, but it burns great on planet Earth, so you have this Venus temperature with earthly combustibility, and that is a bomb, and Fort McMurray turned into a bomb

TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to continue on because it was again I think such a powerful people perspective because you did speak with moms trying to pick up children, people worried about their possessions, and a man who went back to lock his door. These are all human responses because you don’t think it is going to be that bad.

I think we need to think about what this means for us as humans. It is affecting fellow humans. I want to stress that because that is what comes through very much so in the book, that nobody really understood what was happening, from public officials to people. Nobody got it.

JOHN VAILLANT: Yes. Cognitive dissonance was on display on May 3 and in the days preceding it. Nobody is ready for a miles-wide wall of 150-foot flame to come tearing into their city at 20 miles an hour. It was a tidal wave of fire that came into town. When people looked at it, when they saw it on the outskirts clearly coming toward them, there was nothing in their catalog of experience of potential responses, going through what do I say now, like computers going through, “Okay, this is what I say on this occasion.” It was a little bit like that. What do you say, what do you do when such a thing presents itself?

Nobody knows because no one has been there before, and nothing in our evolution or in our society has prepared us for this. You can watch all the disaster movies you want. I do think these are not-so-unconscious attempts to imagine these scenarios, but when it is actually happening to you it is not because you went to the theater to watch it. It is like Shandra Lindor driving down the highway in her beautiful Porsche on the way to drop off her dry cleaning, comes around the bend, and where her city should have been is this massive black and orange wall. She cannot see the sun anymore. Something colossal has intruded itself into her world.

I spent a lot of time with firefighters and civilians who were in that moment that in Greek is called ananévresis, this kind of revelatory awakening to this new and previously unimaginable scenario. It was interesting and scary watching what they did. This man you referred to, by now the fire was in his neighborhood, coming down his street, his wife and daughter had already left in their vehicles on the one road out, which was extraordinarily dangerous but there was no other choice. Meanwhile he is there, thinking: “I worked my whole life to pay for this house, to buy these things, I am way up in Fort McMurray, 600 miles north of the U.S. border in the middle of the forest not just because I love it here but because this is where the money is and this is where I was able to make a beautiful life for my family, and I am not ready to give it up.” There is a police officer dragging this guy away from his door. He fights the police officer off. He runs back. The police officer is going, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m locking my door.”

This fellow Paul looks at me as he is recounting the story, and he said, “I didn’t think my house would burn down.”

Again, 100-foot flames moving through the neighborhood like an inexorable wave. There was no other possibility for his house but to burn down, and yet he was defending his status quo, defending his worldview.

This is where when we talk about certain aspects of climate denial and people who are having a hard time reconciling themselves to this new reality we find ourselves in, I do not think it is all cynicism, it is not all partisan, it is not all people who just are not getting it; it is a lot of people who want to hold onto the wonderful life they have.

Tatiana, you and I are not together physically right now, but I see all the wonderful books behind you. You can see that I am in a nice room here, assuming there are safe and healthy spaces attached to it, and we are around people we care about. We are living a beautiful life right now in so many ways, and I do not want to give it up. If a fire came into my town I would be devastated to let go of this, and it is not just the material stuff—I have a lot of objects I care about—but this is where my wife and I raised our kids, this is where all the memories are, and this is where all the meaning is. When that is a smoking hole in the ground, as it became for this fellow Paul, what is your life then? What does it all mean? You are stripped back to zero. It is a brutal kind of spiritual initiation.

He had his family. His family was safe, but that is literally all he had—he had his truck because that is what he escaped in finally—but nothing else. The status quo, as mundane as it may seem, for a lot of us feels like all we have, so we will protect it with everything that we have including doing some pretty elaborate mental and psychological gymnastics to make it still seem okay.

This seems like a good time to suggest that what I saw in the way Fort McMurray dealt with the forecasts, the preparations, the reality, and then the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire from May 1 to May 3 is in microcosm how I feel our civilization is dealing with climate change. We have had the warnings; we have had the forecasts literally since the 1950s. The heads of state and heads of oil companies were addressed personally and directly by the finest scientists of the day, saying, “When you burn fossil fuels it generates CO2, and CO2 will melt the ice caps.” People were saying this in the 1950s.

All of this has come to pass. It has been said again and again and again since then. It has been duly noted. Some half measures have been taken. Metaphorically speaking we have plowed up some firebreaks and dropped some retardant, but we have not grasped the enormity of what is coming for us.

In that sense I feel like Fort McMurray offers a kind of parable for me and for all of us. That is how I took it as I was studying it. It was like, “Okay, they knew the fire was out there, they could literally see it.” We can see the effects of climate change right now, but it is coming for us just like that fire is. We are with Paul Ayearst right now. We are still trying to lock the door and secure everything and we think we are coming back, and we are not coming back, not for quite a while. That is a painful reckoning that everyone in Fort McMurray went through.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is a great segue into what lessons there can be. I want to start off by reading a tweet that you put in there from Christi Proistosescu: “Just want to make sure everyone understands what we are looking at here. Don’t think of it as the warmest month of August in the last century. Think of it as the coolest month of August in the next century.” When I read that I thought, Oh, wow, yes. If you are in your parable, yes, maybe we need to start thinking that this is the new normal. So what can we do now?

I saw in your book some lessons or some things that we should, for example, flag. You mention here: “The forgotten practices were the simple ones: Don’t build your house in the woods. Surround it with open fields.”

You mentioned early in our conversation this need for us to build these wildland urban interfaces (WUIs). We are building so close now to areas that are flammable that maybe one of the lessons is, hey, we should not do that anymore. Do you think so? What do you think of that?

JOHN VAILLANT: I think, Tatiana, that again is another half measure given the actual state of the world right now and the fact that the Canadian fires have broken every record there is to break and there are a good two or three more months of fire season still to go, when you look at water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico or off the coast of Ireland, when you look at the temperature in Rome yesterday, and when you look at South Asia. These are killing heats. These are killing marine temperatures and killing air temperatures.

What we have to do is stop burning as soon as possible. That is the source of our power and the source of our economy, but it is also the source of the suffering that we are experiencing now and that we will continue to experience. I feel like that is how dire things are right now.

We also need to understand that Darren Woods, the CEO of Exxon, has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of stopping burning. He has said to the press, “At the end of the day we are not an electron company; we are a molecule company.” Molecules are the composing bits of petroleum. That is what he is referring to: “We are not going to go solar. We are not going to go green. We burn petroleum molecules. That is what we do.” And that is what they are going to do. Yet that is exactly what the world does not need right now. We have to come out and say that and deal with that.

Going back to your reference to the WUI, the wildland urban interface, postwar a lot of us went “back to the woods.” A third of new American housing is built in the WUI, in this place where you have a lovely cul-de-sac for scooters and basketball upfront, but you have running trails through woodlands and parks out the back. That is great. It is a beautiful place to live, but when it is on fire it creates a seamless transition for the forest fire to come right into your community. What we have seen is that the modern house has an unbelievable number of petroleum products and flammable chemicals in it, and it burns almost like an incendiary bomb. That is basically what it is when you get it hot enough.

That is not how they are sold to us. That is not how we think of our homes, but what is what they turn into when you have a wildfire projecting 900-degree heat, Venus temperatures. Then it becomes a firebomb.

We need to protect ourselves from these massively powerful fires that are going to become more frequent in our lives. One way to do that is maybe to build out of less combustible products but also to build further from wildfire-prone areas, which is becoming more and more of the world. We do not think of Switzerland as a place that burns a lot. It is glaciers, snow, chocolate, and milk. It is lush and green. Well, they have some massive fires going right now.

Greenland is a polar icecap. Greenland had a wildfire in 2017. How is that even possible? That is the new world we live in now. The things that we never thought would burn are going to burn, including Notre Dame and the Natural Museum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Jagger Library in South Africa at the University of Cape Town. These inviolable structures have become more flammable, but so have all our ecosystems.

There is a direct causal relationship. It is not incidental. It is not peripheral. It is direct. When you burn fossil fuels relentlessly for 150 years as we have you are going to have these impacts, and we have to retrench from that. We have to back off from that if we want to have a remotely livable future. It is a painful and fascinating cultural conundrum.

Think of Paul: “How do I let go of the life that I love, but ultimately I want to be with my family and I want to live through this?” We need to be thinking about that now. We are being forced to think about it.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Yes, you are right, incremental things. Build smarter. As you mentioned and as I found very telling in the book, all our new products are petroleum-based products, furniture, etc., versus a hundred years ago. You are right. These are small things, but they are small things that people can do day to day.

On a bigger level there are certainly bigger initiatives. Here at Carnegie Council we have the Carnegie Climate Governance Initiate that looks at climate change from helping policymakers to better understand options. I got in my email just this morning a message about a new lawsuit against Big Oil by Jeffrey Simon. He is the lawyer who did the opioid suit. He is leading a new initiative.

In your book you mention tort law and duty of care lawsuits. Can we spend a little bit of time on the duty of care? That might be a big idea that might move policy.

JOHN VAILLANT: I am not a lawyer, but this is something I think deserves its own show. Duty of care is the responsibility that any entity like a government has not to do things or encourage activities that will harm the people it is responsible for, such as its citizens.

A lawyer could argue that a government, provincial, state, or national, should not permit an expansion of a pipeline or of a fossil fuel project because of its known impacts on climate that are demonstrably harmful to the citizens in that vicinity and globally. That is an argument that lawyers have used. They have used it successfully. There are literally hundreds of climate-related lawsuits underway around the world right now taking a variety of different approaches.

I feel like where we are now is where lawsuits were against the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 1970s. You have this huge institutional entity that has been socially acceptable for generations, that has very deep pockets, and has a strong sense of its entitlement to be in the world and do what it does and to profit from it, and then you have these annoying lawyers and citizens, who are saying: “Hey, wait a second. This is actually really harmful to us. You are poisoning us.” We are at that point now with climate lawsuits and lawsuits against petroleum companies and chemical companies and the governments that enable them. It is a dynamic time right now.

There is another angle here that I think is important to mention, and that is the insurance industry, which is one of the most objective sources of the impacts of climate change on our daily lives—how many houses are burning down, how much energy is being used by air conditioning. There are all these different ways to tabulate climate impacts. The ways insurance companies do it is: “Well, how many houses have I had to pay for that were lost to flood? How many houses have I had to pay for that were lost to fire? This is not tenable anymore. I am not going to insure people on floodplains anymore.”

State Farm about a month ago said, “We are not going to insure new builds in the state of California for fire.” There are 40 million people in California. State Farm is a huge, wealthy, and well-established insurance company. It is not a newbie. It has been around a long time, it has done the math, and is has realized that fire is a loser. It is too powerful to insure against.

That is going to happen in more and more places. It is already happening also with flood insurance in flood-prone areas. What I am saying is that the insurance industry is forcing us to reckon with our behavior and with the costs of climate change and climate damage, and it is going to do it in ways that change the ways we behave—where we build, what we build out of, and why we build.

All that is going to change. It is not just open season on doing anything we want any more, and that is what the petroleum industry enabled us to do. The world was our oyster. It gave us mobility, it gave us wealth, it gave us power, and it gave us these incredible products that are durable, light, portable, look cool, work well, and all that, but—the big but—the other side of manufacturing with petroleum products is CO2, methane, and other toxic emissions. That was a piece of the calculus we did not consider, and insurance companies do because that is their business. They look at the downside that we do not want to look at.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is the first time I have ever heard anybody say that the insurance companies are good, but perhaps in this sense they might be a change agent.

More can be found here in the book Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World. I want to thank you for writing this book. I want to thank you for bringing this very important topic to our homes because I think that more of us need to talk about this and talk about the impact of fire on our lives, no matter where we are.

I appreciate your time today. I appreciate our audience today. Please send John your questions via Twitter, @JohnVaillant. Send them here to Carnegie @TheDoorstepPodcast. We are happy to engage with you and answer more questions.

Your summer reading—here you are: Fire Weather. Thank you so much, John.

JOHN VAILLANT: Thank you, Tatiana. It was good to talk to you today.

Watch the Full Video

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

You may also like

FEB 22, 2024 Podcast

Ukraine at the Crossroads, with Maria Popova & Oxana Shevel

Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel join "The Doorstep" to discuss shifting war narratives.

FEB 15, 2024 Podcast

How an Unreliable United States Destabilizes the Globe, with Nahal Toosi

Politico's Nahal Toosi returns to "The Doorstep" to discuss how chaos in domestic politics is weakening the United States on the world stage.

FEB 1, 2024 Podcast

The Future of Foreign Policy is Feminist, with Kristina Lunz

In this virtual event, Kristina Lunz discusses her book on feminist foreign policy. How can this innovative approach to global diplomacy become a reality?