Wildfires Are Exposing Canada’s Willed Ignorance of the Realities of Climate Change

The self-deception that has plagued Canada’s response to the changing climate should be harder to sustain in the face of this summer’s wildfires. The 2016 Horse River wildfire in Alberta’s tar sands region was a powerful early warning of the current catastrophe.

Fire support crew extinguishing a wildfire that erupted outside Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada on May 11, 2016. (Amru Salahuddien / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

When Americans think of Canada at all, it is as a source of softwood lumber or superior comedians. In the summer of this year, they became acquainted with a new and most unwelcome Canadian export: wildfire smoke. After huge fires swept through Quebec’s boreal forests, cities throughout the East Coast and the Midwest spent days beneath a thick blanket of hazardous particulates. New York City briefly had the worst air quality in the world. Though largely human caused, freakishly warm and dry spring weather had allowed those fires to rage out of control.

The Canadian journalist John Vaillant’s Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World is a graphic if sometimes undisciplined guide to the coming of a new climate, in which forest fires are changing from a seasonal hazard in remote areas to a permanent menace to urban societies. Vaillant shot to notice with The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, a biography of the maverick logger who exposed the huge damage that clear-cutting had inflicted on British Columbia. With Fire Weather he has returned to the woods to offer not just an overview of a global problem, but a scathing account of the lies that Canadians have told themselves about their relationship with the natural world. He does so with a case study of the Horse River wildfire in northern Alberta, which began in May 2016. In its first three weeks, the fire not only burned a million acres of forest but caused the partial destruction and total evacuation of Fort McMurray, a town of almost a hundred thousand people.

The Magic Sandpile

Vaillant presents these events as a “flashpoint” in the interlinked histories of Canada’s relationship with fossil fuel extraction and wildfires. Fort McMurray owed its existence to the mulish determination of provincial and federal governments to turn a profit from the tar sands of northern Alberta. As long ago as 1715, indigenous trappers from the region had alerted officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company to the existence of water courses thick with pitch. No one could yet think how to take advantage of the bitumen — the Dene people had used it mainly to patch up holes in their canoes.

Subsequent decades brought more discoveries, further establishing the region’s wealth in hydrocarbons, but bringing little change in its exploitation. In 1913, one visionary official organized teams to undertake a three-week journey through swarms of biting insects, hauling scow boats filled with bitumen samples from the distant Athabasca River. Yet even though North Americans were by that time avidly seeking oil for heating, industrial uses, and an ever-growing number of internal combustion engines, it was still not cost effective to extract petroleum from bitumen.

Alberta’s tar sands were aptly named: the geological processes that forced hydrocarbons toward the surface had mixed them up with impurities that required a huge expenditure of fossil fuels to remove. To extract thirty barrels of crude oil, one barrel of crude oil must be burned. However, the same unit of energy expended — one barrel of crude — may produce as little as three barrels of bitumen. Today, miners in Alberta burn two billion cubic feet of natural gas a day to generate the steam that separates bitumen from its sands. The refined product remains an extremely viscous substance that will only flow after undergoing copious and highly polluting processes of dilution.

It required magical thinking to develop the tar sands, given the pitiful energy return that “dilbit” — diluted bitumen — offers on investment. For decades, there were no takers for what Alberta gamely marketed as “Nature’s Supreme Gift to Industry.” However, in the 1960s, J. Howard Pew, an oilman from Pennsylvania and the chair of Sun Oil Company (Sunoco), emerged as the first investor willing to commit a staggering quarter-billion-dollar investment. Pew was both an evangelical supporter of Billy Graham and a libertarian who believed that “if the government goes up, freedom goes down.”

Despite Pew’s principles, the company (eventually known in the tar sands business as Suncor) relied on the Albertan government’s generosity during the launch of its Great Canadian Oil Sands project in 1967, coinciding with Canada’s centennial year. It helped that Ernest Manning, Alberta’s long-running premier, was a graduate of the Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute. Faith in things not seen came easily to Manning, who prophesied at the opening of Pew’s Tar Island facility that “no other event in Canada’s centennial year is more important or more significant.” The province’s willingness to subsidize Suncor and to grant resources at zero cost helped what the press called “Pew’s folly” inch toward viability over the decades. Even then, crude oil prices had to hit fifty dollars a barrel before bitumen was a viable commodity. When those prices began a sustained surge around the turn of the millennium, the tar sands drew in half a trillion dollars of international investment.

The Boschian Moonscape of the Tar Sands

Fort McMurray was the industry’s blue-collar epicenter — and almost Texan in its boomtown bustle. Vaillant’s account of its riotous heyday mingles sympathy for its driven inhabitants with a keen eye for its rawness and contradictions. Known mordantly as “Newfoundland’s biggest city,” it lured workers fleeing the collapse of fisheries on the East Coast, as well as immigrants from around the world. Many tar sands employees took refuge from their grueling jobs in drink and drugs — Fort McMurray was also known as “Fort Crack,” and its Highway 63 was infamous for head-on collisions. While some sought refuge from the hardscrabble existence of tar sands labor in substance abuse, others preferred the consolations of Christianity. Fort McMurray inhabitants could choose from thirty churches. Their clergy had few funerals to perform: many people got rich and moved away before they got old.

Fort McMurray was distinctively macho as well as male. Men outnumbered women twenty-five to one at the tar sands worksite to the north of the town. In this Boschian moonscape, enormous machines scraped away the “overburden” — the boreal forest and the layers of topsoil below it — to get at the bitumen. Yet Fort McMurray was a nest of leafy suburban idylls: costly homes on winding crescents that gave onto golf courses and greenways.

The burning of the hydrocarbons mined near Fort McMurray fostered the climate changes that nearly destroyed it. Vaillant’s planetary narrative of the greenhouse effect and the obstacles that scientists faced in spreading awareness of it is all too familiar. Yet he excels at evoking the macabre ironies in which this involved Fort McMurray. In 1959, president of Sunoco Robert Dunlop was one of the grandees who gathered in New York City to hear the physicist Edward Teller speak at an event held to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the first oil well sunk in the United States. Teller presciently outlined the disasters that would ensue from the continued buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet Dunlop was much more interested in Teller’s suggestion that one might use nuclear bombs to blast open bitumen deposits — a proposal that the Albertan government only shelved when it became clear that it would irradiate most of the province.

In seeking to frighten plutocrats from their complacency, Teller and other Cassandras of his time spoke about melting ice caps and the inundation of New York. What mattered for Fort McMurray, though, was not water, but heat: the rising temperatures that it is now clear have gradually but drastically intensified the ferocity of forest fires.

Firefighters Versus the Beast

The boreal forest surrounding Fort McMurray and many other Canadian towns is not just prone to large fires but dependent on them for its regeneration — a fact not always appreciated by nature lovers who seek out homes at the wildland-urban interface. Furthermore, the “Spring Dip” — when snows melt and strong sunlight shines on old vegetation for the first time in months — has always been a time of fire risk.

Yet when the Horse River wildfire was first spotted on May 1, 2016, the temperature was thirty degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal for the time of year. The humidity level of 15 percent was on a par with Death Valley, and winds ran at up to forty kilometers per hour. The Fire Weather Index soared to forty, a grotesquely high level, surpassing the previous “extreme” mark of thirty-three. As the wildfire spread, it did so in ways that blindsided first responders. Not only did it quickly become a crown fire, which coursed from ground-level vegetation to the treetops, but the gusting winds carried embers over the Athabasca River, hitherto an impassable fire break, and so into the city itself.

The fire — which was dubbed “the Beast” by the local fire chief and then by Canadian media — besieged Fort McMurray by May 2. As Vaillant notes, the town’s “surreal undoing” quickly followed. By midday the next day, the mood of its residents — used to dismissing distant columns of smoke — shifted to panic as the skies darkened and walls of fire appeared on the horizon. A long column of Ford pickups and SUVs snaked out of town with agonizing slowness as flames advanced as far as the emergency lanes. Although many of these fuel-thirsty vehicles ran out of gas and had to be abandoned by the roadside, the result was that no residents died in the hellish days to come.

The urban firefighters who remained in what they called “Zombieland” were nonplussed to discover that in the extreme weather conditions, residential subdivisions behaved like groves of ultra-flammable black spruce. They may have been priced at half-a-million dollars each, but vinyl-sided homes pushed together on “zero lots” and crammed with oil-based household furnishings ignited in seconds and were reduced to ash in minutes. There were repeated booms as the flames detonated the appurtenances of Canadian affluence: the twenty-pound propane tanks for barbeque grills, welding equipment, motorized sleds, and ATVs. Even before the hydrants ran dry, hoses proved useless: the heat sucked up and vaporized jets of water before they could be effective. Firefighters went on the defensive, forced to gather around and wet down their own fire stations. They devised effective tactics that would have been familiar to Samuel Pepys (famed diarist of the Great Fire of London), using bulldozers and backhoes to pull down rows of houses before they ignited.

Fire Weather

Fire inspires in Vaillant the appalled poetry with which Charles Dickens once described Victorian smog. Just as the fog of Dickens’s Victorian London is “thick and suffocating,” Vaillant’s Albertan fire leaps like “a troop of lemurs” from treetop to treetop. Denied entry at one window, it sneaks in at another like “the velociraptor in Jurassic Park.” It flexes its pincers like “a crab” and settles down to wait like a “seasoned general.” Vaillant stops short of anthropomorphizing fire but is happy to write of it as a living thing. This tactic articulates the sense of the firefighters that they were facing not just an overwhelming challenge but a “malevolent entity.”

Yet Vaillant muddles his descriptions of fire’s responses to changes in wind and aridity when he suggests that it did so with “voracious intentions.” Coining a new mythology that makes fire the rebellious Ariel to our Prospero is an arresting but counterproductive way to communicate disturbing scientific facts. It also fuels other kinds of rhetorical inflation: with the dating of the Anthropocene still a subject of debate, not much is gained by claiming that we live in the still more bespoke Petrocene or, in another of Vaillant’s floral turns of phrase, by rebranding homo sapiens as homo flagrans. Similarly, the claim that wildfires resemble monopoly capitalism because they consume all they touch produces a momentary “huh” of assent in the reader but not much understanding.

The doomier that journalism on climate change and the environment becomes, the more it tends to emphasize slivers of hope. It is hard, however, to be cheerful about fire weather. Since the Fort McMurray blaze went out, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have only increased. The world has warmed further, and wildfires have continued to worsen. The hottest conflagrations now make their own weather, scouring the landscape with pyrogenic lightning and fiery tornados. Forests not just in Canada but around the world now burn so often that they have become net emitters rather than sinks of carbon. Even muskeg bogs and Arctic permafrost are drying out and catching fire. Vaillant is nonetheless hopeful that a rash of legal actions against fossil fuel companies may push them out of business and notes that financiers are heeding the warnings of Mark Carney — the former governor of the Bank of England and an Albertan to boot — to avoid investing in what may soon be stranded assets. In Alberta, the Fort McMurray fire not only briefly forced Suncor to suspend its operations but was followed by a plunge in global oil prices. International capital rushed for the exits.

It is then exasperating that Canadian public policy should be resisting these changes. Vaillant shows that Canadian companies bought up tar sands enterprises from fleeing investors, doubling down on a pariah form of extractive capitalism. They have tackled the waning profitability of bitumen through automation and “demanning” — a new euphemism for workforce reduction. Although Fort McMurray has therefore been rebuilt on a smaller scale, insurance payouts have funded monster houses with heated floors and wine fridges. Earlier this year, as wildfire smoke choked the province, Albertans gave another term in office to Danielle Smith’s United Conservative Party, a staunch friend to the bitumen industry. While her party no longer denies climate change, it still downplays the urgency of taking action to address it.

Such failures transcend notional divisions between left and right. Smith rails against the hostility of Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals to Albertan industry. Yet Trudeau’s government bought the project to construct the Trans Mountain Pipeline when its American investors abandoned it. The New Democratic Party (NDP) in British Columbia fiercely opposed this plan to bring diluted bitumen from Alberta to tidewater at Vancouver, rightly fearing the grave damage that bitumen spills could do to marine environments. Yet the same provincial NDP is championing the construction of a new facility at Kitimat for the export of liquid natural gas — a euphemism for methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. By June 2023, with most of the wildfire season still to run, British Columbia had already recorded its worst ever year for acreage of forest burned, but that has not dented the NDP’s enthusiasm for the jobs that this “clean” facility will generate.

Like John Vaillant, I live in Vancouver. In the intervals of reading Fire Weather, I took a swim at the headland of Point Grey. Located at the foot of heavily wooded cliffs, Tower Beach is out of sight and earshot of cars. Swimmers share the pristine water with seals. Container ships are visible offshore, but sometimes orcas are too. It is a place to nurse old visions of nature as an unspoiled equilibrium. What caught my eye on that day though was a small column of white smoke across the Burrard Inlet. A fire had broken out at Whyte Lake on the forested slopes of Cypress Mountain. It was efficiently extinguished, but that it should have broken out at all in a coastal rainforest and at the very beginning of summer was a grim new precedent to add to the bad omens of which I was reading.

Canada’s political class and its business elites have perpetuated the colonial habit of looking at nature as a quarry of stored value and as a picturesque backdrop to economic activity. The longer we ignore the mounting fragility of the ecological systems that sustain human life, the greater the danger of letting these illusions pass unquestioned becomes.