Skip to site content

Wildfires and Forests

It has been heartbreaking to hear of the 20 deaths and destruction of more than 3,300 homes by the fires that have recently raged in California. This is the largest fire disaster in California’s history. What some have likened to a “perfect storm” for wildfires is the result of natural factors enhanced by a multitude of human decisions.

Could this situation have been prevented? Were these homes placed in an area of God’s creation that is simply too prone to wildfires–the equivalent of building in a flood zone? Did air pollution help to kill trees, making them kindling? Has global warming contributed to the drought that helped create the dangerous wildfire conditions? Are overzealous “tree-huggers” to blame for opposing logging in national forests? Have misguided government policies–or a lack of good ones–contributed to these dangerous conditions?

Amid those questions, the Senate voted 80-14 last Thursday to pass a modified version of President Bush’s “Healthy Forests” initiative, which would make it easier to thin out small trees and brush in federal forests. The House has already passed a similar measure. The Bush administration has signaled pleasure with both versions, so a new forest management law is a near certainty this year, after the House-Senate conference committee reconciles the two versions and sends it to the president.

The Senate bill is a definite improvement over the House version, but it still has some problems. While the Senate bill stipulates that half the funds for “thinning” of forests must go toward areas near populated areas, it opens the door for more logging in old-growth forests, even with safeguards added to the Senate version.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) warned of environmental consequences of the bill’s lifting of reviews for “thinning” actions for up to 1,000 acres and limiting court challenges to such activities. “We could see widespread heavy logging of mature trees even in pristine roadless areas,” Harkin stated.

Mature trees have thick, fire-resistant bark. Younger trees left by the timber companies do not. So this federal legislation could actually end up making matters worse instead of better.

It also turns out that government’s failure to act probably contributed to the devastation. Over six months ago Gov. Gray Davis–as well as a bi-partisan group of California members of Congress–asked President Bush for emergency funds to deal with the fire potential caused by drought conditions and numerous dead trees killed by an outbreak of the bark beetle. The Federal Emergency Management Agency eventually denied the request just hours before the fires began to rage out of control.

This wasn’t the only government flub. According to U.S. Forest Service figures obtained by the Washington Post, the Los Angeles area received less than $4 million of the $53 million allocated for California this year to reduce fire hazards. And most of that money went to northern California, instead of the south, where the current fires occurred.

Another culprit in these recent California fires is air pollution from Los Angeles, which has weakened the immune system of trees, making them more susceptible to the bark beetle infestation.

Some have suggested that four years of drought suffered by southern California might be associated with global warming. At least one prominent wildfire expert suggests that global warming will make matters even worse in the future.

Thomas Bonnicksen, a forest-science professor at Texas A&M University, told the Fresno Bee  that “if global warming continues, as I think it will, you will see drier years,” than what Southern Californians are suffering now.

Then there is the question of individual and community responsibility. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystem in the areas where the current wildfires have occurred. Large fires are typical this time of year as regional weather patterns create strong dry winds called the “Santa Ana” winds, which help fan the flames.

Why put homes in such an area? As one scientist put it, “It’s like making a decision to live on an earthquake fault.” But as a resident told the Washington Post: “We like the house, we like the area, and if it does burn down, we have insurance. There is the inconvenience of losing your stuff, but it can be replaced.”

And finally, what about those “tree-hugging” environmentalists? Are they the real culprits, as some have charged? Angry e-mails have poured into the offices of environmental organizations, blaming them for this disaster. But no mainstream environmental organizations have opposed the proper thinning of trees, especially around areas of human settlement. It’s scapegoating, pure and simple.

What should be a Christian approach to this problem?

When considering forest management in areas near human settlements, as well as the building of homes in areas naturally prone to fire, we must be guided by the principle of stewardship, as well as Jesus’ central ethical teachings to love our neighbors and do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Creating situations ripe for fires near human settlements is contrary to both the Great Commandments and the Golden Rule. And our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation means we must lovingly care for it and not exploit it or push it beyond its limits.

While scapegoating is counterproductive, it is important to determine levels of responsibility in order to come up with solutions.

Part of the responsibility for these fires does rest on the shoulders of our government–a government we are ultimately responsible for. We need better policies.

Some responsibility rests with all of us, if global warming has contributed to the problem. WWJDrive? is also a question to ask if you are concerned about forest fires.

Those in the community can work to make areas closer to Los Angeles more appealing and affordable. Homeowners can practice responsible stewardship on their own property. Developers can stop developing areas naturally prone to fire. Families can purchase homes in safe areas.

The destruction of homes these fires have wrought, for the most part, was not inevitable. We can all be a part of the solution.

Jim Ball is executive director of the Evangelical Environmental Network and publisher of Creation Care magazine.

Editor’s note: Here’s an update on last month’s column about the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act.  After six hours of debate on the Senate floor, the vote went against the bill, 43-55. Before the vote, however, industry lobbyists predicted it would garner only 35 votes. This vote represents a solid foundation upon which all future climate legislation will be built.  Another bright spot was the support of six Republicans, including Sen. Richard Lugar  (R-Ind.), a respected conservative who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.