Mark Cocker

The world is ablaze – yet climate chaos still takes us by surprise

Our unpreparedness was vividly illustrated by the catastrophic Canadian inferno of 2016 – originally judged a minor brushfire beyond Fort McMurray’s city limits

Trees along a highway near Fort McMurray are engulfed in flames in May 2016. The wildfire, initially ignored, entailed the evacuation of 90,000 residents and a $10 billion price tag. [Getty Images]

In the light of recent fire emergencies on the Greek islands and in the wider Mediterranean, this book has just acquired even more relevance. It centres on another catastrophe in May 2016, a Canadian inferno nicknamed the ‘Beast’, which has become the most expensive natural disaster in the country’s history.

Within three weeks, Fort McMurray’s blaze had incinerated an area the size of Cumbria

Within five days of its discovery, the blaze had forced the mass evacuation of 90,000 residents from the city of Fort McMurray in Alberta Province. In just three weeks, egged on by an El Niño cycle as well as fierce winds and record temperatures across America’s subarctic belt, it had incinerated an area equal to the county of Cumbria. The resulting firestorm of 760°C vaporised 2,500 homes and released 100 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

John Vaillant unfolds these fateful days in all their hellish detail. Ironically, for me they entail one lack of judgment in an otherwise flawless book. The author is compelled by Fort McMurray’s burning too completely. His cast of characters narrating the emergency is large, and I found the geography of the city’s suburbs hard to navigate or visualise. That closeness to the action includes a lot of verbatim testimony from eyewitnesses. Here are two snippets from the same page:

Palmer told me, ‘but this fire – it was kind of like, Okay guys, throw the textbooks in the fire because that’s as good as they are right now.’

‘Okay now I know where I got to go and what I got to do.’ But beyond that, it was just – whatever.

Rather than increasing clarity or tension, such dialogue introduces a degree of banality to life-and-death events.

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