John Vaillant was on a writers’ retreat in Italy in May 2016 when his Twitter feed lit up with dramatic news from his home country, Canada. A great wildfire was engulfing Fort McMurray, centre of the Alberta oil sands industry, prompting the immediate evacuation of 90,000 locals.
The disaster instantly distracted him from the novel he was supposed to be writing. “The reality was a lot more compelling than what was going on in my head,” he says. Then, during an afternoon “writer’s nap”, Vaillant had a dream that convinced him to make Fort McMurray the subject of his next book.
“I came out of the nap with the image of four climbers ascending different faces of the same mountain, each thinking they are the only one, and then discovering each other at the summit,” he recalls. “I sat up and thought: ‘Wow, the four are the petroleum industry, the automobile, climate science and fire behaviour, converging right now in this really intense way’.”
I am talking to Vaillant, 61, in a London hotel the day after the resulting book, Fire Weather, won the £50,000 Baillie Gifford prize, the leading UK non-fiction award. The jury — chaired by FT literary editor Frederick Studemann — called it “an extraordinary and elegantly rendered account of a terrifying climate disaster that engulfed a community and industry”.
Vaillant is accustomed to receiving rave reviews and recognition for his non-fiction books, including The Golden Spruce (2005) and The Tiger (2010), as well as his novel The Jaguar’s Children (2015), but he says there are two things that made the Baillie Gifford prize special.
“One is to win the premier prize dedicated solely to non-fiction,” he says. “There’s a bit of a tendency among non-fictioneers to feel a little like a stepchild next to fiction.”
The second reason is that Britain is the home of the English language — “the language that my mother and father sang to me growing up in New England.” His voice is melodious, warm and welcoming, in speech as well as in print. “I’m writing non-fiction but I’m thinking about music, the sound and timing of the language.”
When I praise the free-flowing prose of Fire Weather, Vaillant mentions, in addition to the English classics, the American authors who influenced him as he grew up: including Herman Melville, James Agee and Leslie Marmon Silko, and the children’s writers Virginia Lee Burton and Holling Clancy Holling.
Our conversation brings out paradoxes about the Fort McMurray fire and Vaillant’s response to it. He is unsparing in his criticism of the oil industry — and exploitation of tar sands in particular — which he sees as the most dangerous case yet in a long line of rapacious capitalism that started with the Canadian fur trade and silver mining in 17th-century Latin America. “The colossal petroleum project at Fort McMurray is not drilling for oil but mining bitumen, a low-grade dog of a petroleum product that they then have to render using huge quantities of natural gas to extract useful hydrocarbons,” he says. “The egregious waste is an abomination.”
Oil industry researchers recognised 50 years ago that relentless exploitation of fossil fuels would cause dangerous global warming, he says. “Yet now you have petroleum CEOs disavowing that science and favouring the sanctity of the company-shareholder relationship that everything else has to work around.”
Still, when Vaillant visited Fort McMurray following the disaster, he received a warm welcome. “As a journalist from Vancouver, I’m almost certain to be a leftist enviro,” he says. “For me to go up to someone there and say, ‘Hi, tell me about the worst day of your life,’ there’s a two-word answer which would be totally understandable. No one reacted like that. Everyone took me seriously and a lot of people cried with me. I’m talking to hardworking north country Canadian dudes and three hours later they’re dabbing away [tears]. It wounded people badly.”
Remarkably, the Fort McMurray conflagration caused no human casualties, unlike some recent wildfire tragedies — notably this summer’s Lahaina fire in Hawaii that killed 100. Everyone got out physically unscathed, though some were mentally scarred. “When things got apocalyptic, the human social net closed,” Vaillant says. “I have all my feelings about the petroleum industry and what it’s doing to the world, but the fact that everyone made it out and they all checked on each other — that’s what’s beautiful about that community.”
But he concedes that the successful evacuation may not have been facilitated only by strong community feeling. Unlike some other fire-ravaged places, Fort McMurray had a young population trained in the petroleum industry’s disaster and fire scenarios, with very few elderly and infirm inhabitants.
Although Vaillant denies anthropomorphising fire, the book does portray the element as an voracious monster. At the beginning, the Fort McMurray fire moved at astonishing speed consuming everything flammable in its path, from desiccated trees to plastic-rich houses, while making a vertical impact as convection generated a thundercloud 45,000 feet high. Then it hung around: the fire was not officially declared extinguished until a year later.
“Fire is not sentient but it has many of the attributes of a living thing,” he says, “and it does have ambition because it will die without oxygen, just as we will.” Then he compares “the way this fire behaved and the way it was able to reproduce itself and wanted to get bigger” to the behaviour of large corporations.
By the time Fire Weather appeared this summer, the scourge of wildfire had become a more evident consequence of global warming than it was when Vaillant started writing. “If you talk to any climate scientist, they’ll tell you that 2023 is a signal year, whether you look at Antarctic ice, sea surface temperature, deep sea temperature, land temperature — or fire. The Australian fire season is ramping up right now in a way that looks like they might have another black summer.”
Vaillant has not embarked on another book — or even settled on a possible subject, though it is likely to be non-fiction. “Fiction feels increasingly like an indulgence,” he says. “People have been responding to this book in intense ways,” adds Vaillant. “They seem really ready to engage with the issues. Right now I can’t think of anything more important or more pressing.”
Clive Cookson is the FT’s senior science writer
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