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 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.