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John Vaillant’s Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World wins The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2023

16 November 2023

Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World by John Vaillant has been named winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2023. The winner was announced by Chair of Judges, Frederick Studemann, at a ceremony hosted at the Science Museum and generously supported by The Blavatnik Family Foundation. The announcement was streamed to readers around the world via the Baillie Gifford Prize social media channels.

Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World tells the story of the devastating wildfires that struck Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016. Triggered by high temperatures and dry conditions, the conflagration originated in the forest and proceeded to engulf half a million acres of land, including the Athabasca oil sands. This forced 90,000 people to evacuate their homes, many of which were destroyed in minutes as the flames swept through entire neighbouring communities. Through the story of the Fort McMurray wildfire, Vaillant skillfully examines the interconnected narratives of the oil industry and climate science, the immense devastation caused by modern wildfires in our increasingly more flammable world, and the lasting impact on the lives affected by these disasters.

Vaillant has been praised for Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World across the media. In the Guardian, Tim Adams describes the book as ‘an urgent warning – and an all-consuming read’. Becca Rothfeld in the Washington Post agreed, calling it ‘a gripping narrative and a loud wake-up call’, whilst Derek Brower in the Financial Times heralds Fire Weather as ‘a disaster book of epic proportions’ that ‘should shake us out of our climate-change stupor’.

In a recent interview with prize director Toby Mundy for READ SMART, the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction’s podcast, Vaillant reflects on the terrifying nature of modern wildfire, ‘what we’re not ready for, is the speed with which it moves, and that is, I think, a metaphor for how climate change is impacting us […] we’re at that gradually-and-then-suddenly moment in climate change, just as the residents of Four McMurray were at lunch time on May 3rd.’ Regarding the victims of the wildfire, Vaillant remarked, ‘Fort McMurray gave a kind of preview of the scale of the impacts that we can expect’.

John Vaillant's previous award-winning non-fiction books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, were north American bestsellers. His debut novel, The Jaguar’s Children, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. Vaillant’s previous books have been awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award (Canada), British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, (United States) and the Pearson Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction (Canada). He has written for, among others, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and The Walrus

John Vaillant, winner of the 2023 Prize with the judges

The Baillie Gifford Prize aims to recognise and reward the best of non-fiction and is open to authors of any nationality. It covers all non-fiction in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts. As part of the celebrations marking the prize’s 25th anniversary, it was decided that as well as the winning author receiving £50,000, the other shortlisted authors would receive £5,000 (up from £1,000), bringing the total prize value up to £75,000.

Fire Weather: A True Story from a Hotter World was chosen by this year’s judging panel: Literary Editor of Financial Times, Frederick Studemann (chair); historian and author Andrea Wulf, theatre critic for the Guardian Arifa Akbar, writer and historian Ruth Scurr, journalist and critic Tanjil Rashid and Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts Andrew Haldane. Their selection was made from the 6 books on the shortlist, which were chosen, in turn, from 265 submissions, all of which were published between 1 November 2022 and 31 October 2023.

Frederick Studemann, chair of judges, says:
‘”Fire Weather” brings together a series of harrowing human stories with science and geo-economics, in an extraordinary and elegantly rendered account of a terrifying climate disaster that engulfed a community and industry, underscoring our toxic relationship with fossil fuels. Moving back and forth in time, across subjects, and from the particular to the global, this meticulously researched, thrillingly told book forces readers to engage with one of the most urgent issues of our time.’

Nick Thomas, partner, Baillie Gifford, says:

‘The six shortlisted books are thoroughly researched and marvelously diverse. We at Baillie Gifford are grateful to the authors for their genius and effort. Many congratulations to John Vaillant for winning with this brave and timely book.’

The other titles on this year’s shortlist were:

Author / co-author (Nationality)

Title (Imprint UK/US)

Hannah Barnes (British)

Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock's Gender Service for Children (Swift Press)

Tania Branigan (British)

Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China's Cultural Revolution (Faber & Faber/W. W. Norton & Company)

Christopher Clark (Australian)

Revolutionary Spring: Fighting for a New World 1848-1849 (Allen Lane/Crown Publishing Group, both Penguin Random House)

Jeremy Eichler (American)

Time’s Echo: The Second World War, The Holocaust, and The Music of Remembrance (Faber & Faber/Knopf Publishing Group)

Jennifer Homans (American)

Mr. B: George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century (Granta Books, Granta/Random House)

READ SMART the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction’s podcast, will release an episode devoted to the winner of the 2023 award, hosted by Razia Iqbal and featuring John Vaillant. It will be available the week following the winner announcement.