Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Fire in the Foothills
distributed 9/10/10 - ©2010

The "disaster de jour" at the start of the week was in my part of the country. National TV news showed riveting pictures of an out of control forest fire near Boulder, Colorado.

On Labor Day morning, fire spread quickly through an area of "wildland-urban interface". After four days, the fire has burned abut 10 square miles of forest, destroyed 169 homes, and still is only partly contained.

Do the math on those figures, and you can see that those steep hillsides at the edge of the Rocky Mountains are pretty heavily populated. (Another indicator: 3,500 people were evacuated from the fire area.) That "interface" zone where forests and the city overlap is -- or was -- an area of affluent suburbs where large homes are built in scenic, rugged canyons. (You can get a feel for the setting from a photo of part of the evacuation area that didn't burn.)

My musings this week expand from the immediate drama of a local disaster to touch on some larger theological and ethical questions.

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Fire is one of the periodic wake-up calls to folk in my home state about the power of nature. Incinerated subdivisions remind us that humans can't control everything. People in other places get similar lessons from hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods.

These catastrophic events give our arrogant, over-confident society a strong dose of humility. When flames explode into the hills on a windy day, all of the best efforts of hot-shot crews and slurry bombers don't stand a chance of stopping it. When a hurricane aims for the coast, all you can do is get out of the way. (Or, for those who can't evacuate, there's the advice given before Ivan and Katrina struck: take a hatchet with you into the attic, so you can cut through the roof when the waters rise.) And when a tornado spins down out of the clouds, there may not even be time to run.

When nature asserts itself, the pretense that we've got it all under control falls apart -- even in the places where wealth and technology give us the best chance. But for most of us, the veneer of predictability returns fairly soon. The crisis ends, another sort of disaster captures the news, and we get back to life under the same assumptions of an orderly and manageable world.

Today, though, I find myself thinking beyond fires in Boulder, and even beyond Katrina five years ago. The global news this year highlights places where the level of day-to-day control was pretty marginal to start with, and where the disasters are of a different scale. Nature doing its own thing isn't just inconvenient, it highlights the essential fragility of human society on this crowded, stressed planet.

Think of Haiti, where impoverished multitudes are still homeless half a year after the earthquake. Or consider Pakistan, where 21 million people have been displaced by last month's massive floods. Or Russia, where exceptional heat took thousands of lives, burned forests, and devastated wheat harvests. Our local fire this week barely suggests the real lessons about humans not being in control of the forces of nature.

It is a rude awakening when a wildfire wipes out a community of homes. It is a shock when millions of refugees flee the devastation of floods and earthquakes. But still the profound lesson hasn't soaked into our collective consciousness. So many people still seem to be supremely confident that these things are flukes and aberrations. There's still that arrogant assumption of being in charge.

The disaster planners and experts may be worried, but so many of us -- politicians and business leaders, and the ordinary folk in our neighborhoods -- still believe in their hearts that we're in control, even with the pending big ones. Climate change? We'll adapt. Overfished oceans? We'll grow some other kind of food.

But this week's fire, on top of Pakistan and Russia and Haiti, tells me the theologically and practically grounded message. We are creatures, not gods. We are part of the natural world, and subject to its rules and power. That's a lesson that we need to learn in our hearts and souls, as well as in our minds.

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Colorado columnist Ed Quillen has a different term than "wildland-urban interface" for places like the foothills near Boulder. He calls them a Stupid Zone. "A Stupid Zone is an area that is stupid to build in, on account of predictable dangers -- avalanches, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, floods, etc."

Sometimes, people don't have a choice about living in a stupid zone. After devastating floods in Haiti in 2004, one resident told a reporter, "The government came by and said we were in the river's path, but we didn't have the money to move or buy any land or build anything, so we stayed."

But the Boulderites whose homes were destroyed in this week's fires had a choice. They built or bought expensive homes in a stupid zone because it is a beautiful place. Many of them say that they will rebuild, even knowing that fire is a regular force of nature in those mountainous forests.

When people choose to live in a stupid zone, it does several things that impact us all.

Dense subdivisions in mountain canyons mean that fires cannot be allowed to take their natural course anymore. Frequent small fires are God's way of maintaining forest health. When the small burns that are ecologically good threaten expensive homes, though, real estate trumps biology. The fires are extinguished, the forests become more overgrown, and the risk of catastrophic blazes increases. The stupid zone becomes even more stupid because of the homes.

The imperative to protect lives and property in the stupid zone comes at a steep cost. There are over 500 dedicated firefighters in the Boulder foothills this week, putting their lives at risk. Specialized aircraft have been brought in from around the country to dump water and chemicals. The estimated costs to battle the blaze are over $2 million, and rising.

I watch scenes on TV of enormous homes exploding in flame. I cannot shut off my awareness that people with lots of options made a joyous choice to live in that stupid zone. I am painfully aware that our society is picking up the tab for maintaining the illusion we can make their world safe and predictable.

Ed Quillen wrote, "The blue-collar kids on the fire crews end up being sacrificed to protect the estates of the upper crust." They're also protecting our unrealistic view that humans are separate from, and in control of, that natural world.

Fires are inconvenient, and locally devastating. But our entire planet is becoming a stupid zone because human impacts are warping natural systems. Our entire society will increasingly take on huge costs to try to adapt, and as we try to maintain control. And the poor of the world are being sacrificed so that the wealthy can lead privileged lives of ecological destruction.

Nature will eventually assert itself. The systems inherent in God's beautiful creation will play themselves out. If we humans are as wise as we like to think, then we'd best learn the lessons, and change our ways. We'd best learn how to live with nature, instead of fighting it, controlling it, and distorting it.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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