How to Tell the Story of a Giant Wildfire

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John Vaillant’s book “Fire Weather: A True Story From a Hotter World” takes readers to the petroleum boomtown of Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, in May 2016, when a wildfire that started in the surrounding boreal forest grew faster than expected and tore through the city, destroying entire neighborhoods in a rampage that lasted for days.

Such fires have become more common in the years since, but in 2016 the size and ferocity of the Fort McMurray wildfire felt like something new. On this week’s episode, Vaillant (whose book was one of our 10 Best for 2023) calls it a “bellwether,” and tells the host Gilbert Cruz how he decided to put the fire itself at the center of his story rather than choosing a human character to lead his audience through the narrative.

“It was a bit of a leap,” he says. “It was a risk. But it also felt like, given the role that fire is increasingly playing in our world now, it really deserved to be focused on, on its own merit, from its own point of view, if you will.”

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