Part 1, March 2024

Green Line By Brenda Johnson Kame’enui

Me neither. Extreme weather (and fire) events have become so commonplace, that we frequently don’t register them.

Canadian writer John Vaillant’s extraordinary book, Fire Weather – A True Story From A Hotter World, gives a chilling and gripping account of the fire that overtook the “petrocity” of Fort McMurray, Alberta in May 2016. Vaillant’s research is staggering. He is also an elegant writer.

It is fire’s nature to strive upward… to aspire, which means… “to breathe desire into,” and also “to rise.” Fire, it can be said, is aspiration in its purest form: desire burning and burning desire—to exist, to consume, to grow, to flourish—all as fervently as we do. Fire does not have consciousness, but it does have character…

(Vaillant, Fire Weather, 2023, p. 60)

As far as we know, ours is the only planet with fire. Vaillant calls us casual wizards for the way we have mastered fire. Consider a world of 3 billion people, who heat homes and cook with one form of fire or another. Add 1.3 billion vehicles of every kind that generate up to and beyond 10,000 combustions per minute, each combustion a fire that generates heat, energy, and exhaust. “In just the past hundred years… our planet has become a flickering universe of fires large and small” (Vaillant, Fire Weather, 2023, p. 61).

Fort McMurray, Alberta is a young city, built to support, in every way, the petroleum industry. It sits halfway between the U.S. border and the Arctic Circle. Without this modern city, the landscape looks like Siberia. The city is rimmed by boreal forest that, despite being a sponge of lakes and ponds, rivers and creeks, burns every fifty years. This forest phoenix, reborn in fire, incinerates in order to regenerate.

Just below the forest floor that surrounds Fort McMurray (median income $200,000/year in 2016) is the resource that supplies the industry of lucrative salaries, overtime, dedication, and wear-and-tear on body and soul. Bitumen (pronounced BITCH-amin), “the degenerate cousin to crude oil,” fills the Alberta tar sands. The process of excavating bitumenous sand and separating the 10% tar-like bitumen requires scraping the Boreal forest, using vehicles up to 100 tons, digging pits the size of football stadiums, using massive volumes of water, and depositing toxic sludge back into the earth and air. The scar in the Earth from behemoth vehicles at the McMurray facility is visible from 6,000 miles out.

The bitumen industry uses two billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to separate bitumen from sand. Natural gas emits methane, which retains heat in the atmosphere at least 25 times more effectively than CO2. Yet retrieving oil and gas molecules from the tar is still not finished, even after the separation. Cost: an ecosystem used for next to nothing, an industry heavily subsidized, and no consequences meted out for emissions. The rough estimate for investment to date in Alberta’s bitumen industry is half a trillion dollars.

Remember the Cataclysmic Fire in Alberta in 2016? (Part 2, April 2024)

It was 90 degrees in Fort McMurray, Alberta on May 3, 2016. The sub-Arctic desert sported many spot fires “out there.” Children went to school, adults went to work, city officials expressed no alarm on the morning radio. Within a few hours, tens of thousands of residents sought escape in panic. Thousands of large pick-up trucks, cars, and RVs snaked in an orderly fashion along a single highway through an inferno that licked at anything combustible, which was everything.

At temperatures hovering around 32 degrees C (90 F), humidity at 12%, and nights failing to cool off, fire fighters faced a losing battle. The whipped-up fire sent sparks one-third mile across the Athabasca River and continued as a crown fire in residential areas. Houses burned to the ground in five minutes. In the end, heroic equipment operators drove the behemoth industry vehicles to scoop entire houses into their basements in one swoop, to eliminate fuel. Oxygen as fuel remained unabated because of winds created by the fire.

Next month, a timeline will be shared, beginning in 1771, of how long we have known effects of CO2 on the closed atmosphere envelope that surrounds Earth.