Does the name Fort McMurray mean anything to you? I must admit that, until I read this book, I had only a vague idea of the place as a remote mining town somewhere in northern Canada. What I now know is that Fort McMurray is a large, sprawling urban area (not technically a city but it ought to be one) in the boreal forest of Alberta, and that its mining activities – extracting oil from bitumen – are on such a gigantic scale that they can be seen from six thousand miles up in space, at which height they are the only visible signs of human industrial activity. This whole vast area was consumed, in May 2016, by a wildfire the like of which had never been seen before in an urban setting. It spread at terrifying speed, burned for months, created its own weather and achieved such destructive force that it could make a house and all its contents vaporise in five minutes, leaving behind only a hole in the ground and a few scraps. The fire destroyed almost everything in and around the town, burned more than two thousand square miles of forest and was the costliest natural disaster in North American history. Miraculously, no one died: nearly ninety thousand people managed to escape by car along traffic-choked roads, with fire raging all around them, smoke reducing visibility to almost nothing and the air full of blazing embers.
The dramatic story of the Fort McMurray fire is vividly told in John Vaillant’s impressive new book. Before he gets down to the events of 2016, he relates the history of the area, back to the days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and of the exploitation of bitumen, initially