Book detailing ‘harrowing’ impact of wildfires wins Baillie Gifford Prize

A book exposing the impact of wildfires on a Canadian community has been awarded the 2023 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction.

John Vaillant’s Fire Weather: A True Story From A Hotter World was announced as winner of the £50,000 prize at a ceremony held at the Science Museum in London on Thursday evening

The book chronicles the wildfires at Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 2016 where an estimated 90,000 people were forced to flee their homes and uses the event to look into the oil industry and climate science.

Financial Times literary editor Frederick Studemann, chairman of the judges, said: “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.”

This is the first time climate change has been the subject of a winning book, organisers said.

The news comes amid investment management firm Baillie Gifford being accused of “making huge profits from global disaster” in August by authors who threatened to boycott a literary event over the company being a sponsor.

Historian and author Andrea Wulf, the Guardian theatre critic Arifa Akbar, writer and historian Ruth Scurr, journalist and critic Tanjil Rashid and chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts Andrew Haldane joined Mr Studemann in awarding the prize.

Vaillant’s previous non-fiction books include The Golden Spruce: A True Story Of Myth, Madness, And Greed which also focuses on a human story amid the backdrop of people’s relationship with nature.

The Canadian-American author won the prize ahead of a profile of the NHS’s flagship gender service for children, titled Time To Think: The Inside Story Of The Collapse Of The Tavistock’s Gender Service For Children by British writer Hannah Barnes.

US author Jeremy Eichler’s debut book Time’s Echo: The Second World War, The Holocaust, And The Music Of Remembrance and British writer Tania Branigan’s book titled Red Memory: Living, Remembering And Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution were also among the shortlisted books.

Nick Thomas, partner at Baillie Gifford, said: “The six shortlisted books are thoroughly researched and marvellously 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.”

Authors threatened in August to boycott the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2024 as the event had Baillie Gifford as a sponsor.

The letter, signed by Ali Smith, Zadie Smith and Gary Younge along with other writers, came in the wake of climate activist Greta Thunberg pulling out of an appearance after accusing the company of “greenwashing”.

The firm rejected Ms Thunberg’s claims that it invested “heavily” in fossil fuels, saying just two per cent of its clients’ money was invested in the sector.

During a press event, Mr Studemann dismissed suggestions that controversy surrounding the company was behind the decision to award the prize.

He said the panel were “aware of the events in Edinburgh” and none of the judges work for the company.

Mr Studemann also said: “I never met anyone in the process of this prize from Ballie Gifford.”

He also said it would have been “cheap” for a book about the environment to be chosen instead of the judges reading through hundreds of submissions.

The Baillie Gifford Prize shortlisted authors will receive an increased prize fund of £5,000 – up from £1,000 – as part of the celebrations marking the award’s 25th anniversary.

Last year, British author Katherine Rundell won the award for her modern biography documenting the many sides of poet, scholar and member of the clergy John Donne, titled Super-Infinite: The Transformations Of John Donne.