Vaillant takes £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize
November 20th, 2023
For his book, Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast (Knopf $38), John Valliant of Vancouver has won the UK’s most preeminent non-fiction book award, the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize (formerly known as the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction).
“Fire Weather brings together a series of harrowing human stories with science and geo-economics, in an extraordinary and elegantly rendered account of a terrifying climate disaster that engulfed a community and industry, underscoring our toxic relationship with fossil fuels,” jury chair Frederick Studemann said in a press release. “Moving back and forth in time, across subjects, and from the particular to the global, this meticulously researched, thrillingly told book forces readers to engage with one of the most urgent issues of our time.”
The Baillie Gifford Prize aims to recognize and reward the best of non-fiction and is open to authors of any nationality. Vaillant will receive £50,000, (approximately $85,000) while the other shortlisted authors will each receive £5,000, bringing the total value of to £75,000.
Fire Weather was chosen by this year’s judging panel: Frederick Studemann (chair); Andrea Wulf, Arifa Akbar, Ruth Scurr, Tanjil Rashid and Andrew Haldane. Their selection was made from the 6 books on the shortlist, which were chosen from 265 submissions, all of which were published between 1 November 2022 and 31 October 2023.
Read the BC BookWorld review of Vaillant’s Fire Weather here:
Review by Alexander Varty
I am reading John Vaillant’s Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast in the parking lot of a medical facility in suburban Parksville, on Vancouver Island. Inside, my partner is getting a bone-density scan. It’s a routine procedure for women of a certain age, she assures me, and nothing to worry about. Yet I’m alarmed, and something to worry about is waiting just over the horizon. Literally just over the horizon: looming above the low hills to the west is a pillar of grey smoke and ash, evidence of the Cameron Bluffs wildfire that has destroyed 229 hectares of forest and temporarily closed highway access to Port Alberni and the long beaches beyond.
This is June on the West Coast. We live in a rainforest. This should not be happening.
And yet overhead the sky is blue, the sun is hot, and the Cameron Bluffs fire is just one of dozens that have flared up across British Columbia, burning at a time of year that has historically been marked by moderate temperatures and copious rainfall. Something unprecedented is happening, and Vaillant is here to tell you why.
Fire Weather is nominally about one specific fire: the May 2016 conflagration that turned Alberta’s fossil-fuel epicentre, Fort McMurray, into hell on earth; that destroyed thousands of homes; and that burned unchecked by human efforts for almost three months before rain and cooler temperatures calmed its fury. More than 2500 times larger than the Cameron Bluffs fire, it smouldered on for more than a year before finally being declared over, and resulted in something like 4.7 billion dollars in insurance payouts.
The first-hand accounts collected in Fire Weather are terrifying, as are the security-camera videos captured and saved on cellphone by fleeing residents. “One in particular looks like it could have been shot by the director of The Blair Witch Project,” Vaillant reports. “The fire is right there, right outside, bobbing this way and that, like it’s trying to see inside the room…. Suddenly, the fire punches through the second layer of glass, making the same sound and hole as a fist. There has been no three-dimensional intervention of any kind, only this vaporous, spectral presence, and yet it is battering its way into the room. This is what horror is—a malevolent entity from another dimension, breaking through to this one.”
The science behind the calamity is also the stuff of nightmares. Given the right conditions, wildfires can jump rivers, melt heavy machinery, and turn tall conifers into flaming torches in a nanosecond. The forest conditions were right that Alberta spring: unusually dry air and high winds contributed to the disaster. “With the forest already primed to burn,” Vaillant explains, “a pyroCb [pyrocumulonimbus cloud], combined with wind-driven embers and lightning, changed this fire from a localized conflagration into a perpetual motion machine of destruction.” And once this machine left the forest, conditions created by humans were even more propitious. The modern house—with its vinyl siding, vinyl flooring, and kiln-dried framing timbers—is a collection of incendiary devices waiting to ignite; building thousands of these houses on postage-stamp-sized lots and then stuffing them with propane tanks and internal-combustion vehicles is, as Fort McMurray found out, almost suicidal.
“When a boreal fire is projecting thousand-degree heat and blizzards of burning embers into a recently built neighbourhood,” Vaillant says, “the houses stop being houses. They become, instead, petroleum vapour chambers.” Few materials are more flammable than petroleum vapour.
Even more terrifying, however, is Vaillant’s clear-eyed explanation of how the boreal forest—and the California redwoods, the Australian eucalyptus stands, even the Arctic tundra—came to burn. We did it, and there’s every reason to believe that we’ll keep doing it.
“Fire has no heart, no soul, and no concern for the damage it does, or who it harms,” he writes. “Its focus is solely on sustaining itself and spreading as broadly as possible, wherever possible. In this way, fire resembles the unspoken priorities of most commercial industries, corporate boards and shareholders, and, more broadly, the colonial impulse. It has taken decades, but the dissembling, distracting, gaslighting, bribery, bullying, and outright lying perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry … is being exposed in ever harsher light.”
There are parallels here, in both structure and intent, with Vaillant’s earlier and highly recommended The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Both concern man’s inhumanity towards nature, the inevitable karmic consequences of human greed, and the scarifying beauty of a fearsome apex predator—and one of the great strengths of Fire Weather is its author’s ability to invest wildfire with life, character, even agency. He doesn’t anthropomorphize fire, but in an almost animist way treats it as an unknowable, unrulable elemental. The underlying message, of course, is that while fire’s power can surge beyond our control, we are in charge of whether we provoke it.
At the moment—as fire season 2023 is soon to prove—we persist on adding fuel to the blaze. Even more than rising sea levels, multi-year droughts, flash floods, and freakish storms, fire is already the visible face of the climate emergency in the industrialized world. Can we alter our ways? It’s doubtful, but this brave, angry, compassionate, and elegantly argued book could well be a spark for change.
Alexander Varty is a veteran West Coast arts journalist living on unceded Snuneymuxw territory.