by Joe Selzler
" By preventing all fires in a forest we are actually killing it and the animals within it more thoroughly than any fire ever will."
I grew up in the State of Minnesota in Northern USA, a land of more than 10,000 lakes and covered by vast forests. Logging was essential to the early economy of the state with logging camps just about everywhere. My hometown of Bemidji was a very important logging center with at least two major sawmills by the turn of the 20th century, Crookston Lumber Company Number 1 mill and Number 2 mill.1 Unfortunately, wherever you have timber you are likely to have fire. Both of Bemidjis main saw mills burned to the ground, #1 mill twice. On November 8, 1924, #1 mill burned to the ground for the second time with the loss of 24 million board feet of select white pine, valued at over $750,000.2 The truth is, wherever you have a forest or timber, fires are an ever-present danger. That is the reason why states like Minnesota are dotted with fire towers everywhere. One of the main jobs of the US Forestry Service in forest preservation is to prevent and control forest fires. It is estimated that about 4.6 million acres of forest burn in the USA alone each year, with nearly 1 billion acres burnt world wide each year. Not only are many acres of forests lost to these fires, but also the homes and even the lives of many residents who inhabit these areas. And then there is the ecological cost of the fires as well. The natural habitats of many forest animals are affected or lost. The smoke from the fires can have an affect on nearby areas and the loss of so many trees can reduce the ability of nature to soak up the carbon that our industrialised world produces.
I remember this phrase very well. I heard it all of the time on TV and radio. A friendly bear called Smokey, who wore a Forest Rangers hat, spoke it. It certainly got the message across that forest fires were bad and that we needed to prevent them. Smokey was a small black bear that was found by Forest Rangers clinging for life to a burned out tree after a fire. He had obviously lost his mother to the fire. The rangers took the small bear in and he became the mascot for forest fire prevention, and millions of American children grew up listening to Smokeys advice on campfires and matches and so forth. This need to get the message out was a result of the Forest Service being tasked in the 20th century with preventing forest fires in America. Forest fires were seen as so destructive to the local ecology and economy that they had to be prevented. On top of this was the drive of naturalists to save whatever remained of Americas virgin forests. These were forests that had never been lumbered by humans and were therefore considered national treasures.
In the last few decades, however, we have learned that forests actually need forest fires to maintain a healthy condition. For instance, the Giant Sequoia of Central California actually require the heat of a forest fire in order for their pine cones to open and release their seeds. During a fire, the soil surface beneath the large trees are burned, exposing the mineral rich layers that are essential for seedling growth. The Aspen trees of Utah need fire to burn off the build up of dead material in order to expose the soil beneath so that their seedlings can take hold. Indeed, the six National Forests in Utah are working on plans to burn up to 750,000 acres of forestland in order to restore the health of these areas where fire is now seen as part of the natural cycle of things. Apparently these forests are no longer producing new growth and the fuel for fires (such as dead trees on the ground and dense undergrowth) are building up to the point that wildfires can become infernos, threatening human life and property. And some think that these fires will sterilize the soil so that no forests will return afterwards.
Sometimes emotive issues surround the topic of forest fires. No one wants to see a beautiful forest destroyed by fire. It will never be the same! Of course, we also think of the animals that will be killed or orphaned by fires so that we become desperate to prevent them. However, in reality, by preventing all fires in a forest we are actually killing it and the animals within it more thoroughly than any fire ever will. We are producing for ourselves, decaying, dying forests that may soon reach the point of no return. By preventing nature from taking its course we are destroying the nature we so badly want to preserve.
Surely it comes down to our lack of knowledge about the true order of things. Often we react to things such as forest fires in haste, without understanding fully what they mean. We try to prevent what we perceive to be a disaster only to bring on an even greater one. We sense the momentary pain or destruction without realising that a greater entity lies on the other side of the fire. A fire can clear out a dead and decaying forest and replace it with a new, healthy and steady growing forest that may be even more majestic than the one we saw before the heat of the flames.
Peter tells the readers of his letter to the churches3, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold that parisheth though it is proved by fire, may be found unto praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Many times you and I face situations in our lives that are difficult, sometimes even disastrous. Our first reaction is to recoil, to get away from the situation if we can and as fast as we can. To our short-term vision the situation is for avoiding, not embracing. Most of the time, however, we cannot avoid the situation. It just happens to us and we are unable to foresee it or prevent it. We just have to go with it and ride it out. Then we have to admit, that just like the forest fires that can rejuvenate and clear out the dead wood, these situations have a way of clearing out the deadness in our lives and restore the health that we need. Many times in our lives a better person rises up from the ashes of a fiery trial and we begin to see that our Creator does have a purpose for our lives.
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