Thought for the Week – Fire is Life

As part of the ‘Season of Creation’ Joan Ishibashi, of St James’s Eco Team, writes her Thought for the Week about the increasing challenges of the climate crisis and wildfires.

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Moses was always a bit of a rebel from his early days. He decided to take his father-in-law’s flock of sheep farther into the wilderness, and came upon a bush that was in flames, but not burning up. It is a familiar story; the fire does not consume the bush. Rather, it reveals the holy, the sacred, as God calls out to Moses from the flames. “I have observed the misery of my people. I know their sufferings and have come to deliver them to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

The last time I set pen to paper to ponder the climate crisis, I wrote about the terrible fires in California in 2017 and 2018, where I spend part of each year when I am not in London. At the time it seemed that it could not get worse. The largest fire ever recorded, over 100 million trees lost due to ongoing drought and fire, loss of human life, millions of animals killed or displaced, entire towns decimated by fast moving flames. Well, in a few short years, it has grown worse. Ever larger and more devastating fires. The worst drought in 1,200 years in California. Fires raging across Europe. Even the pastoral United Kingdom is suffering drought and destructive fires. Fire feels like our enemy, a deadly consequence of the growing climate crisis.

In California, post WWII and subsequent years, Smokey Bear was as well known as Santa Claus. Wearing a forest ranger cap and carrying a shovel, Smokey appeared everywhere on posters and television, telling us, “ONLY YOU, can prevent forest fires!” Like an advertising earworm, all of us, young and old, had that phrase burned into our consciousness. Fire is bad, we must be careful to always extinguish our fires when camping in the woods and better yet, never start a fire in the first place.

But fire is not our enemy. It is necessary for life; it is one of the four basic elements of nature: earth, water, air, fire. And as Moses discovered, it is a harbinger of God, of the divine, life-giving and life-loving force.

Frank Lake, forest scientist and member of the Karuk Tribe of northern California says fire is medicine. It is a different way of thinking about fire than the way government agencies have treated it.

Recently the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies have realised their tragic mistake in forest management with decades of fire suppression. What has resulted is dense underbrush that has grown unchecked, due to all of us, especially firefighters, obeying Smokey Bear’s mandate. With the continuing drought, increasing temperatures and other issues of the climate crisis, this thick vegetation has provided the tinder to grow massive wildfires that are causing unprecedented death and destruction.

Now the agencies are seeking out the wisdom of the local tribes, who have traditionally practiced fire management as a way to preserve and nurture forests and grasslands. By setting small, contained fires that burn vegetation, tribes like the Yurok tribe of California have created breaks in forests and grasslands that prevent wildfires from growing. Instead of 100% fire suppression, a strategy that includes setting and controlling fire is being adopted. This is the way nature has always worked; a balance between fire and rain, developing optimal conditions for forests and grasslands to thrive. Our indigenous communities understand this; it is going to take longer for our government agencies to understand and undo the damage they caused. But positive change is happening! Fire is not our enemy. Amy Cardinal Christianson, a member of the Mètis nation in Canada said, “We coexist with fire, we need fire and fire needs us”.

Flames did not consume the burning bush. Rather, the fire was revelatory and life affirming. God has seen the suffering of God’s people and gave them the promise of a new home and a new life. God chose fire to reveal this fundamental understanding of new life for God’s people.

As we face the increasing challenges of the climate crisis, including bigger and more frequent fires even in the U.K., we can find ways to cooperate to protect and nurture our environment. As Christianson emphasises, collaboration and a holistic approach is the way forward.

Part of a prescribed burn in California. Photo by Don Hankins for PBS.