Monday, August 31, 2009

The Goodness of Fires

I live in Southern CA and we're currently in the middle of a heat wave and a horrible series of brush fires. It's too hot to go outside and to make matters worse, the air quality is nasty. Personally, this is my least favorite time of the year.

Even so, I keep trying to remind myself that forest fires are a natural, even essential, part of a healthy ecology. You could say that they are a "necessary evil."
“The fire is a natural component of the boreal forest ecosystem,” says forest fire expert Mike Flannagan, research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service. “The message that fire is bad has changed. Fire isn’t bad, it’s natural.”

The past has given us plenty of examples. In 1988, wildfires burned more than one-third of Yellowstone Park in Wyoming after a number of smaller fires raged out of control. But in the years following the fire, a new cycle of forest growth began to rise from under the charred canopy.
Moreover, much of the devastation we are currently experiencing could be minimized if the forestry service was allowed to perform regular controlled burns. Unfortunately, people who live in mountain areas don't usually want the air around their expensive homes periodically filled with smoke.

Ok, so what? What does this have to do with the Christian faith?

Actually, it has sort of an important connection.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of evil in the world - moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is that evil which humans perpetuate on one another. This is usually answered with some form of the "free will" defense. (Evil people perpetuate evil on others.) But this doesn't work as an answer to natural evil. So then the question becomes, how could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow lives to be lost through such destruction. Forest fires presents a supposed example of this kind of natural evil. This also includes other natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and the like.

At this point, I would encourage Christians to not let the atheist paint us into a corner too quickly on this issue. A couple of points can specifically be made with respect to forest fires.

1. God created the "laws" of physics to work in certain ways that make life on earth possible. The same weather systems that create tornadoes to help regulate the planet's temperature, also create thunderstorms to water the earth, and bring fires to rejuvenate forests. In fact, certain kinds of pine seeds cannot grow until they have been through the heat of a forest fire! The more we learn about how our planet works, we are discovering that these so-called disasters play a vital role in sustaining life.

2. It is important to observe that many of the things that are called "natural evil" are actually the result of "moral evil." In the case of forest fires, the decision not to have periodic controlled burns not only impacts the ecological health of the land, but it also ends up destroying homes and even human lives. Such loss is tragic, but also often unnecessary. Is this God's fault? Certainly not. It is the result of "free will" decisions made by humans.

3. Finally, is it God's responsibility when we choose to build homes in beautiful places that are vulnerable to fire? Certainly, we have to accept some level of responsibility when we take a calculated risk to build a house in the mountains or on a major earthquake fault line.

I'm hopeful that you'll share these thoughts with your kids. Give them a different perspective on these "natural disasters."

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