When I was in Milwaukee a few months ago to cover the first Republican presidential debate. I set aside a few hours beforehand for a little field trip. So do you mind setting the scene? What does it feel like out here?
Well, it's hot and muggy and windy because we're right on Lake Michigan...
That's Erick Shambarger. He's the director of environmental sustainability for the city of Milwaukee. And what was a truly sweltering late August morning. He took me to see something that is hard to miss if you're driving in towards downtown, a wind turbine.
Well, that's about 150 feet tall. So it's it's half the size of the ones you would see on a, you know.
In like the middle of a cornfield or something.
Now I was curious about this turbine because, you know, you just don't really see a lot of them in major cities, especially not within city limits. But Shamberg says since this one was installed back in 2012, it saved the Port of Milwaukee, a total of about $200,000 on its electric bills since then.
Relative to what an urban turbine it performs very well. And I think one of the things that you'll notice is in your microphone, you probably don't hear it. I think one of the when we were first proposing this neighbors, you know, there was all these concerns about, you know, is this thing going to be noisy. I think people envisioned in their head it would be like a helicopter chopper or something. But, you.
No...I can't hear it at all.
But yeah, basically all the ambient noise you're hearing is car traffic. And there's really nothing from the wind turbine to here.
Now I cannot stress enough how hot it was on the day I was there. It was a high of 101 degrees Fahrenheit, well above normal for late August in Milwaukee. But that's kind of why I was interested in talking to Eric, because as we see the impacts of climate change start to become more and more pronounced around the world and in the U.S., there's still a sense held by some people that the Midwest is sort of a climate haven. You know, there's no sea level rise or hurricanes to worry about in Illinois or Minnesota. Sure, it gets hot in Indiana during the summer, but nothing like you're going to see in Florida or Texas. I grew up in the Midwest. I've heard some of this. Erick had heard it, too. But he said this year the reality in his city became impossible to ignore.
This year has been particularly bad because we had very low bad air quality directly related to the wildfires in Canada. And to me, that was a wake up call where wildfires that happened thousands of miles away in Canada is really affecting the air quality here, including people with asthma.
Did you hear from people that like, reached out to your office, 'Like, what do I do? How do I deal with this?'
Yeah. So there's you're talking about people working to adapt to changing conditions. And so that is an issue for sure. And it takes the trouble is sometimes in America we wait until problems are really acute, even though you can see on the horizon challenges coming, sometimes people don't act until you know they're really feeling the effects. But we have to do both.
Now, more people do seem to be feeling the effects and realizing the dangers. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll released just last month showed that 71% of Americans believe the climate crisis is harming at least some people in the U.S. right now. And a new report from the nonprofit research group Climate Central paints the picture in even starker terms, according to their analysis, November 20, 22 to October 2023 was the hottest 12 month period in at least 125,000 years, 125,000 years. But I want to go back to that wildfire smoke because, you know the saying where there's smoke, there's fire. And those fires seem to be getting bigger and bigger.
My guest this week is John Valiant. He's a writer, journalist and author of the book Fire Weather A True Story from a Hotter World. He's going to tell us how one devastating Canadian wildfire seven years ago changed the way firefighters all over the world battled the blazes of today. From CNN. This is One Thing. I'm David Rind.
Hey, John, Thanks for being here.
Oh, it's good to be with you, David.
So in your book, you write about this fire that broke out in the Canadian city of Fort McMurray back in 2016. Tell me about it.
Well, Fort McMurray is is an anomaly in North America and Alberta. It's shorthand way to understand it. It's the Texas of Canada. So you've got the prairies, you've got the oil, you've got evangelical Christians. You've got this really independent attitude that is somewhat alienated from the federal government. And 600 miles north of the U.S. border, deep in the boreal forest is this massive petroleum project called Fort McMurray. And they're creating oil. But really what they're doing is they're melting bitumen, which is tar out of sand and then processing it with vast quantities of natural gas into something that simulates petroleum that Southern refineries can use. This fire took off in May 2016 outside of Fort McMurray and normally would might burn through empty forest. Wouldn't be a big deal. But would you have a city of 100,000 people in the way with a multibillion dollar petroleum industry right behind it? Then it becomes a catastrophe. And that's what happened.
And so how did this start?
'Well, the boreal forest is that huge for a system that runs around the northern hemisphere all the way across the top of North America. It's about a third of Canada. And it is a very flammable environment that regenerates through fire. So the fires up there, they'd be front page news in the states, in southern Canada, but because it's so sparsely inhabited up there, you don't hear about them. Well, this was a boreal fire that ignited when the temperature was in the mid-nineties and the humidity was comparable to Death Valley in July, it was 11% humidity. And when you tweak the atmosphere in small ways that aren't necessarily noticeable to us, you know, when you reduce the humidity from, say, 25% to 11%, when you goose the temperature from what would be normal in Fort McMurray, which would be, say, in the sixties or the seventies, and you push it into the nineties and then you light a fire in there. It empowers the fire in these really shocking ways. And so this fire had 300 foot flames. It was about six miles wide. All fires project radiant heat. And that's that's the heat that comes off the flame that tells you not to touch it. And the heat coming out of that fire into Fort McMurray was about a thousand degrees.
A wall of flame lapped at the side of Highway 63 and jumped the city's major thoroughfare. Tens of thousands were ordered to leave.
So a dried everything bone dry, heated it up way past combustible temperatures so that when the fire actually came into the community. Houses didn't catch on fire. They exploded into flame. And just imagine vinyl siding, tar shingles, plywood, gas tanks, snow tires. Everything is off gassing when it gets that hot.
There's this cloud of flammable gas now over the city. The fire hits it and houses. You know, these are two story substantial modern houses burning to the basement in 5 minutes.
And one of the more remarkable surveillance videos ever captured. A homeowner could watch his own house go down in flames. Only 20 minutes after evacuating.
Firefighters, needless to say, had never seen anything like it. They could not fight it. All they could actually do was try to get the people out of these communities as fast as they could, because also no proper evacuation had been called and it was almost like an incendiary bombing. Wow.
Fire jumped the river and we had basically 2 minutes to get home, grab our stuff, and we had to leave.
This is my house. This was my house. Nothing left. It's gone.
What are these last few days been like?
Hell on earth, just like hell.
And that was new. New in the experience of Canadians.
And you mentioned the small changes in the atmosphere to put a fine a point on it. That's climate change, what you're talking about.
Absolutely. I mean, we've been burning petroleum, you know, hard for 150 years and coal before that. And CO2 is a is a durable gas, and it's built up in the upper atmosphere to the point that our atmosphere is is holding more heat close to the earth. And, you know, we can go outside. So it feels like summer today. And we might think, okay, I'll wear short sleeves, but fire is empowered by that. And forests dry out more quickly when it's warmer. And so it becomes that much more flammable. And that's what happened on May 3rd, 2016. And so that fire burned through the city. And then as the wind changed, it burnt back through the city. And so fire was in the city for over a week. Burning structures threatening these giant tank farms outside the city, near the petroleum projects. It was a truly apocalyptic scenario that just went on and on and on.
I mean, you said this was new and the firefighters didn't know how to fight it. They really couldn't. Yeah. So what have firefighters learned from this fire that they are using today?
It's like, you know, your adversary suddenly has been taking steroids and you didn't know about it. And so what they've learned and unfortunately, the summer of 2023 has been the worst fire summer in Canadian history, the northeast of of North America. You know, New York and East Coast has really suffered from the smoke coming out of these fires, which are still burning to this day. I mean, it's everything is just off the charts up here.
Those fires are still burning here as we talk in late October.
Yeah. Yeah, they're still going. They're definitely simmering down, so to speak. But it's been a it's been a hell of a fire season. And so what I think what firefighters and communities have learned is preemptive evacuation, because they realize when that fire comes into the community, you're not going to be stopping it at the first house or the second house. In fact, we've had several small towns burnt to the ground just this summer in Canada and many massive evacuations, 200,000 Canadians, which is a lot of Canadians, it's a smaller country, have been driven from their homes by fire just this summer. So it's a really steep and unforgiving learning curve. Preemptive evacuation is the main one, but we're really going to have to think about where we actually build our towns and what we build them out of. And we're seeing that in the States, too.
Right. I was going to ask, because you mentioned that officials were just finding piles of nails afterwards. So like, how are people thinking about what they build out of the material specifically?
Well, and these same questions are coming up, you know, in Lahaina, Hawaii, in Boulder, Colorado. And and, you know, so it's not just a Canadian problem. It's really a it's a global problem. And I think the the implications for the building industry, the implications for the insurance industry, which is already going through convulsions right now, these are these are sort of going to shake society to the core. These are all these kind of invisible practices that we don't really pay much attention to. You know, the house gets built, you buy insurance, you grumble about the bill, and on you go. And now you build this house. But it's actually an extraordinarily flammable structure. The modern house is much more flammable than than traditional wood construction because it has so many chemicals and petrochemicals in it. So this is a reckoning that really has yet to be undertaken.
Advisories are up parts of the western and central U.S. due to heavy smoke from wildfires in Canada.
More than 40 million people across the Northeast, Midwest and mid Atlantic are under air quality alerts.
For a second straight day. New York City is experiencing some of the worst air quality in the world.
That reckoning, that idea because I think a lot of people saw the wildfire smoke come down two major cities in the US and thought, hey, this was pretty crazy. Like I got to wear my mask for an afternoon because things are so bad. But is that enough to get people really thinking about these bigger scale things that you mentioned, like building differently or evacuating and moving differently? Like, is it enough of a wakeup call?
David This is really the $64 billion question. And I think the insurance industry is really taking a hard look at itself. I don't think the building industry is yet. And I think people are really dedicated to maintaining their status quo. And so what they did in Fort McMurray, they built everything back. They build the houses bigger, but basically out of the same stuff. And they are still expanding their petroleum operations, which is generating still more CO2, still more methane, which is going to make the problem worse. And so people want to return to that old world and it's it's over. And that's a really painful thing to face up to. It's not just inconvenient. I think it's also emotionally painful to let go of the world that you became an expert living in. And now we have to find a new way to to be in the world.
And in the case of Fort McMurray, you mentioned how wealthy that industry made people that work there. So I imagine that is also a big incentive to stick around and keep going, even though it's directly contributing to the conditions that caused this massive fire in the first place.
It's it's a real bind they find themselves in. And that's that, in a way, is a microcosm of how all of us who depend on the petroleum industry for our mobility and for so much of our wealth and power in the world, we have to really reexamine that. And that's you know, that. It's going to be a primary task of the 21st century.
Well, the book is "Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World." John Valiant, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.
David, good to chat with you.
And you heard John there mention how the insurance industry is already having to adjust how it operates in the face of these huge fires. And my colleagues at CNN Business actually have a story about this up right now as we approach the start of COP 28, the big global climate change conference that starts later this month. We have a link in the show notes of this episode where you can find that story along with all of our other coverage.
One Thing is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me David Rind. Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer. Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. And Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of CNN Audio. Special thanks this week to Haley Thomas and Lyndsey Read. And thank you for listening. We'll be back next Sunday. I'll talk to you then.