Wildfires–A Planetary Feature

Wildfires enable us to gain knowledge of our planet from unique perspectives. Currently one of the largest wildfire episodes in modern history has devastated the US west coast. Upwards of six million acres have burned in California, Oregon, and Washington. Tragically, the current known death toll is 36 with thousands of homes and other structures destroyed. Smoke from this conflagration was detectable across the country, even causing the sun to assume an unnatural appearance. 

The Creator designed our Earth system with divine wisdom. Some may pronounce Planet Earth “a place to thrive.” Others may see our planet as “a place of brokenness and despair.” In describing Planet Earth we have used the phrase “a place to thrive” eleven times in our past blog posts. In contrast we have used the phrase “a place of brokenness and despair” four times to describe what we feel is an errant description of our planetary home. 

Wildfires have been a feature of our planet for millions of years, as evidenced by the presence of fossil charcoal. Earth has been blessed with a just-right amount of CO2 to promote plentiful plant life. Animal life is sustained by plants with the support of a stable atmospheric composition of 21% oxygen. Taken together, we are blessed with plentiful carbon based plant life and plentiful oxygen—also just right amounts for the occasional combustion of plants in wildfires. 

But wait! Would we wish for less CO2 to provide less human food? or less oxygen in order to reduce wildfires? Atmospheric oxygen combines with carbon fuels such as petroleum and natural gas, increasing the atmospheric composition of CO2 ever so slightly. CO2, a so-called greenhouse gas, has contributed moderately to the world temperature rise of about 1ºC in the last century. There are other factors causing rising world temperature. This 1º change does not explain the proliferation of current wildfire events. Blaming west coast wildfires on global warming is an error of unprecedented dimensions.

We return to the fact that wildfires have occurred on Earth ever since land plants appeared eons before the creation of humanity. Evidence exists that thousands of wildfires occurred long before CO2-driven globalwarming was touted as a ‘scientifically proven’ cause of wildfires. Today’s media catchphrase is “Look at the science.” There is much unsupported propaganda concerning ‘climate change.’ Today’s science does not demonstrate that west coast wildfires are caused by global warming. Science has, however, identified a multitude of weather conditions in the American west. Primarily, wildfires are driven and exacerbated by periodic drought, high temperatures, wind, and low humidity. These conditions are common on the west coast and always have been seasonally present. Wildfires could be up to 85% human-caused—campfires, smoking, equipment malfunction, and arson—depending on site proximity to humans. Natural causes of wildfires commonly include dry lightning and rarely, volcanoes.

A search of the history of western wildfires before 1850 reveals fewer devastating fires equal to current west coast events. California was basically undeveloped in the first half of the 19th century. There were only about 8000 non-native colonists in 1840. If there were wildfires in the forests of California, no one sought to extinguish them. There was minimal loss of life and structures. Today many California residents live in hilly, wooded regions deemed to be beautiful and desirable for home placement, but prone to extreme fire danger. The problems of dense urbanization are exacerbated by deficient community planning and building codes. Annual coastal weather patterns should be carefully studied with an awareness of the existence of long term weather trends.

There are multiple examples of wildfires in our day. Fire plays a vital role in many ecosystems. One outstanding example is the 1988 fire which occurred in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, burning through 36% of its area. Prior to 1988 the spectacularly scenic Yellowstone ecosystem possessed unique charm but forests and diverse plant species quickly re-established themselves after the fires. Resilient wildlife survived better than expected. Our family visited Yellowstone both before and after the fires. We recall observing many areas of lodgepole pine in the process of natural re-establishment as we travelled through formerly burned areas.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, especially since 1972, controlled fires have been encouraged as a beneficial factor in forest management. These actions are opposed by some environmental groups who advocate against (1) harvest of mature trees (2) thinning of excess biomass, and (3) removal of dense underbrush. This results in over-accumulation of biomass and subsequent vulnerability to raging, fast-moving fires. In studying forest management issues we realize the matter is complex and far from simple. Large populations, mountainous topography, and unique weather patterns in California make forest management especially challenging.  

There were many other historic tragic wildfires. In 1910 three million acres burned in Montana, Washington, and Idaho. It was dubbed the “Big Blowup.” Before that, the 1871 Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin and Michigan was the deadliest: 1200+ killed, 3.8 million acres burned. The Great Hinckley Fire in Minnesota (1894) killed 418. In the same state 453 perished and 250,000 acres destroyed in the Cloquet fire of 1918.

Wildfires may be considered either natural or man-caused disasters. We have reported  natural disasters over which humans have no control. Examples are hurricanes, floods, droughts, volcanoes, and similar events. With wildfires, however, we possess a measure of control, either by avoiding careless fires or by wise implementation of controlled burns for reducing the severity of future fires and improving current forest conditions.  According to Marc Abrams, professor of forest ecology in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State University, “Native Americans knew that to regenerate plant species that they wanted for food, and to feed game animals they relied on, they needed to burn the forest understory regularly.”

We have quoted Genesis 1:28 many times in our posts: God instructed humans, “…..Be fruitful and increase in number: fill the earth and subdue it…..” We posit that modern humans must actively study and manage the creation for their own benefit and for the glory of the Creator. This amplifies the meaning of subdue in terms of inspired creation care.     

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