More than once this summer, U.S. cities have been hazed by smoke from wildfires. With orange sunsets and grey, hazy days, the smoke makes climate change visible in the sky.
Publishers and nongovernmental organizations seem already to have noticed the uptick in the number, intensity, and duration of wildfires in the past several years. And so in time for this summer’s burn, they have released several new books and reports, five just since the start of the new year. As a counterpoint to the joyous “grove of tree books” Yale Climate Connections put together for Arbor Day, this month’s bookshelf presents 12 titles on the climate-charged threat to their — and our — future: wildfires.
The list begins with two global reports — from the United Nations Environment Program and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — and a scientific study about what happens when both natural and artificial materials burn together at the wildland-urban interface.
In the next six books and reports, readers can find surveys and histories of wildfires in Canada, California (and the U.S.), Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Australia.
Wrapping up the list are a terrifying account of a single fire, the 2016 blaze that overran “the hub of Canada’s oil industry”; a survival guide for “protect[ing] yourself, your home, and your community in the age of heat”; and a collection of essays by nature writer Barry Lopez, who experienced a devastating wildfire during his final battle with cancer. If we love life and nature, he writes, we must “embrace fearlessly the burning world.”
As always, the descriptions of the titles are adapted from copy provided by the organizations and publishers that issued them. When two dates of publication are included, the second is for the paperback edition.
Spreading Like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, edited by Andrew Sullivan et al (United Nations Environment Program 2022, 124 pages, free download available here)
Wildfires are becoming more intense and more frequent, ravaging communities and ecosystems in their path. A new report, Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires, by UNEP and GRID-Arendal, finds that climate change and land-use change are making wildfires worse and anticipates a global increase of extreme fires even in areas previously unaffected. Wildfires can devastate to people, biodiversity, and ecosystems; they also exacerbate climate change, adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Calling for a new ‘Fire Ready Formula’ and recognizing the importance of ecosystem restoration, the report argues that we can minimize the risk of extreme wildfires by being better prepared and building back better afterward.
This report provides a global assessment and outlook on wildfire risk in the context of climate change. It discusses the drivers behind the growing incidence of extreme wildfires and the attribution effect of climate change. It outlines the environmental, social, and economic impacts of wildfires by illustrating the losses and costs observed during recent extreme wildfire events. Building on this, the report presents the findings of a cross-country comparative analysis of how countries’ policies and practices have evolved in recent years in light of observed wildfire risk in Australia, Costa Rica, Greece, Portugal, and the United States. The report underlines the urgent need for governments to scale up climate change adaptation efforts to limit future wildfire costs.
The Chemistry of Fires at the Wildland-Urban Interface by Special Committee (National Academies 2022, 214 pages, free download available with registration)
Wildfires in America are becoming larger, more frequent, and more destructive. Many of these fires occur at the wildland-urban interface (WUI), areas where development and wildland areas overlap as communities expand into previously undeveloped areas. Unlike conventional wildfires, WUI fires are driven to burn both human-made structures and vegetation. The interaction of these two types of fires can lead to unique public health effects. This report outlines the chemical information decision-makers can use to mitigate WUI fires and their potential health impacts. It describes key fuels of concern in WUI fires, especially building materials like siding, insulation, and plastic. The report recommends a research agenda to inform the response to and prevention of WUI fires.
Dark Days at Noon: The Future of Fire by Edward Struzik (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2022, 304 pages, $39.95)
Dark Days at Noon provides a broad history of wildfire in North America, from before European contact to the present, in the hopes that we may learn from how we managed fire in the past, and apply those lessons in the future. As people continue to move into forested landscapes to work, play, and live, fire has begun to take its toll, burning entire towns and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. Fire management in North America requires attention and cooperation from both sides of the border; many of the most significant fires have taken place at the boundary line. Edward Struzik argues that wildfire science, informed by Indigenous knowledge, needs to guide the future of fire management, and political leaders need to shape public perception accordingly.
Introduction to Fire in California 2E by David Carle (University of California Press 2021, 248 pages, $24.95 paperback)
What is fire? How are wildfires ignited? How do California’s weather and topography influence fire? How did Indigenous people use fire on the land we now call California? David Carle’s clearly written, dramatically illustrated first edition of Introduction to Fire in California helped Californians, including the millions who live near naturally flammable wildlands, better understand their place in the state’s landscape. In this revised edition, Carle covers the basics of fire ecology; looks at the effects of fire on people, wildlife, soil, water, and air; discusses firefighting organizations and land-management agencies; and explains how to prepare for an emergency and what to do when one occurs. In the process, this new edition brings the wildfire story up to 2020.
Pyrocene Park: A Journey Into the Fire History of Yosemite National Park by Stephen J. Pyne (The University of Arizona Press 2023, 192 pages, $14.95 paperback)
Renowned fire historian Stephen J. Pyne argues that the relationship between fire and humans has become a defining feature of our epoch, and he reveals how Yosemite offers a cameo of how we have replaced an ice age with a fire age: the Pyrocene. Organized around a backcountry trek to a 50-year experiment in restoring fire, Pyrocene Park describes the 150-year history of fire suppression and management that has led us, in part, to where the park is today. But there is more. Yosemite’s fire story is America’s, and the Earth’s, as it shifts from an ice-informed world to a fire-informed one. Pyrocene Park distills that epic story into a sharp miniature.
Forest Fires in Europe, Middle East, and North Africa 2021 by J. San-Miguel-Ayanz et al (EU Joint Research Centre 2022, 180 pages, free download w/ registration)
This annual report documents the previous year’s forest fires in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The report also aims to improve cooperation among the members of the Expert Group on Forest Fires (EGFF), especially with regard to fire prevention and climate change adaptation measures in response to fires. Our common aim is to maintain and protect our landscapes and natural heritage, to avoid loss of human lives, and to minimize the damage caused to property by uncontrolled forest fires. Toward this end, the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) seeks to provide harmonized information on forest fires and to assess their effects in the Pan-European region.
Australia’s Megafires: Biodiversity Impacts and Lessons from 2019–2020, edited by Libby Rumpf et al (CSIRO Publishing 2023, 512 pages, $69.99 paperback)
The Australian wildfires of 2019–20 (Black Summer) were devastating and unprecedented. These megafires burned more than 10 million hectares. Many were uncontrollable. And they affected many of Australia’s most important conservation areas and severely impacted threatened species and ecological communities. But these fires also triggered an extraordinary and highly collaborative response by governments, NGOs, Indigenous groups, scientists, landholders, and others, seeking to recover the fire-affected species and environments. This book documents that response. It draws lessons that should be heeded to sustain that recovery and to be better prepared for the comparable catastrophes a changing climate makes inevitable.
Firestorm: Battling Super-Charged Natural Disasters by Greg Mullins (Viking Australia 2022, 304 pages, $34.95 paperback)
Greg Mullins followed his father into fighting bush fires – it was in the blood. As a career firefighter, he worked his way up the ranks to become Commissioner of one of the world’s largest fire services, Fire and Rescue NSW, for nearly fourteen years. When it came to natural disasters there was little, if anything, he hadn’t witnessed firsthand. Over five decades he watched as weather patterns and natural disaster risks changed, seeing bush fires becoming bigger, hotter, and more destructive. He risked his life in the 1994 Sydney fires and, later, during our catastrophic Black Summer of 2019–20. He talked to scientists and weighed their evidence with his experience, coming to the realization that human-made global warming was setting the stage for a deadly firestorm.
Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World by John Vaillant (Random House 2023, 432 pages, $32.50)
In May 2016, Fort McMurray, the hub of Canada’s oil industry and America’s biggest foreign supplier, was overrun by wildfire. The multibillion-dollar disaster melted vehicles, turned entire neighborhoods into firebombs, and drove 88,000 people from their homes in an afternoon. Through the lens of this apocalyptic conflagration, John Vaillant warns that this was not a unique event, but a shocking preview of what we must prepare for in a hotter, more flammable world. With masterly prose and a cinematic eye, Vaillant takes us on a riveting journey through the intertwined histories of North America’s oil industry and the birth of climate science, to the unprecedented devastation wrought by modern forest fires, and into lives forever changed by these disasters.
This Is Wildfire: How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat by Nick Mott and Justin Angle (Bloomsbury Publishing 2023, 272 pages, $27.99)
Wildfires are getting more destructive than ever before. Flames in forests are scorching about twice as many trees as they did two decades ago, and nearly 100,000 homes, barns, and other structures have been incinerated. “Fire seasons” are now fire years. This Is Wildfire is required reading for this new reality. It offers everything you need to know about fire in one useful volume. It reflects on the history of humanity’s connection to flames; analyzes how our society arrived at this perilous moment; and recounts stories of those fighting fire and trying to change our relationship with it. It also offers practical advice for choosing your insurance, making your home resilient, and packing a go-bag.
Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World: Essays by Barry Lopez (Random House 2022/2023, 352 pages, $18.00 paperback)
An ardent steward of the land and unrivaled observer of nature and culture, Barry Lopez died after a long illness on Christmas Day 2020. The previous summer, a wildfire had consumed much of what was dear to him in his home place and the community around it — a tragic reminder of the climate change about which he’d long warned. At once a cri de coeur and a memoir of both pain and wonder, this remarkable collection of essays includes previously unpublished works, some written in the months before his death. With an introduction by Rebecca Solnit that speaks to Lopez’s keen attention to the world, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World opens our minds and souls to the importance of being wholly present for the beauty and complexity of life.