Changemakers Speaker Series: John Vaillant and our addiction to fire

John Vaillant appearance at the the sold out RRU Changemakers speaker series April 25, 2024. RRU’s Changemakers Speakers Series explores the complex challenges facing humanity and innovative ideas about how we might solve them. Learn more about the series.


“If you look at homo sapiens objectively, we are a fire cult. If you look at us through our deeds, through our behaviour, everywhere we go, fires follow us.” 

- John Vaillant, author


Fire powers our cars, heats our homes, cooks our food. It is integral to human life on Earth.

And it is killing us, says John Vaillant, author of the widely acclaimed Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, about the 2016 fire that consumed Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Vaillant, who will speak April 24 in Victoria as part of Royal Roads University’s Changemakers Speakers Series, says the planet is “coming to a point of crisis” due to CO2 and methane spewed into the atmosphere by anthropogenic combustion — i.e., fires, controlled and not, caused by human actions.

“We are entangled with fire, with combustion, with the superpowers it endows us with — with, frankly, the casual wizardry that it enables — in a way that is now, and has been for some time, actually working against our best interests,” says Vaillant.

“It functions like an addiction because it’s hard to imagine life without it. It’s so accessible and available, and yet on some level, we understand that it’s not good for us.”

Indeed, Vaillant argues that humans, aided by the fossil fuel industry, have altered the chemistry of our planet and its atmosphere in profound, life-changing ways, as evidenced by extreme weather events and destructive wildfires like the one he spent seven years researching and writing about for Fire Weather.

“There are a lot of fires and there have been a lot of fires. And this one, Fort McMurray, just struck me,” says Vaillant, who has written two other award-winning non-fiction books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, and whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic and The New York Times, among other publications.

“Nobody imagined that the citizenry of Fort McMurray, the workforce of Fort McMurray, this absolute engine of North American industry, could literally be run off the landscape in an afternoon. It was like a nuclear blast — basically, that’s how much energy was released.”

In researching this conflagration, Vaillant says he came to understand it was a convergence of a variety of factors taking place less than 200 years from the beginnings of fossil fuel energy, the first commercially available internal combustion engines and the study of climate science.

So, while fire has empowered us, he says, we have empowered fire.

“Fire burns more intensely, more broadly, more frequently across the entire globe than it ever has in human history, and we did that, we did it in 150 years, practically in living memory.”

And just as he found lessons in the Fort McMurray disaster, the Earth has lessons for all of us, he says.

“What nature is telling us right now by making entire swaths of the Earth uninhabitable and ocean temperatures so warm it looks like the Permian age, is, ‘Pay attention to me. What you humans do impacts me, Planet Earth, and believe me, I’m going to impact you.’”

But change is possible, and Vaillant says, “The change begins with awareness and recalibrating your thinking, and I think to understand… that we’re a fire-powered civilization and that is having environmental costs that are untenable and have the potential to doom us.”

He notes that the United Kingdom — a G7 country and one of the biggest economies in Europe — has reduced per capita emissions of greenhouse gases to 1880s levels. 

“If they can do it, we can do it, anybody can do it,” Vaillant says.