Glacier National Park. Yellowstone Park. Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest. Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. These are but a few of the better known areas affected in a recent wave of destructive fires that have swept across various parts of the United States.
These fires have resulted in billions of dollars in property damage, not to mention the toll on human life, whether in actual casualties or resultant economic hardships. Animals and their habitats have also been destroyed, with surviving populations displaced as well, which can lead to various ecological imbalances. And the impact of these disasters reaches far beyond the immediate vicinities of the actual fires. Weather patterns and natural resources are also affected by these catastrophes—not to mention the drain on a region’s economy, when its industries are impacted, especially in areas relying heavily on tourism for the bulk of their fiscal intake.
Among the factors contributing to this disastrous trend are drought conditions, forest mismanagement (which itself is rooted in, and even driven by, several elements) and human carelessness. Organized efforts to curb the trend are failing, due to the inability (or at least the lack of insight) to treat the causes.
The weather has played a major role in these catastrophes. The western U.S. has been plagued by drought for the past five years. While it is not our purpose in this brief article to examine the dynamics of drought, or its many causes and effects, it cannot be overstated that widespread forest fires are but one of the disastrous results of long-term drought conditions. (To learn more about the drought phenomenon, read our trend report What’s Wrong With the Weather?)
It can be argued that little (if anything) can be done to control the weather. However, there can be little doubt that man and his environment have a direct relationship. The adverse effects of industry on the environment (including impact on weather patterns) are well documented. (Again, there is not space in this article to expound on this in detail. This is more fully addressed in our trend report This Polluted Earth.)
Industry is not alone in bearing the burden of guilt. It seems that, with each advancement in any given field of human endeavor, there is an array of unforeseen—or, at best, simply inevitable and insoluble—side effects. And again, true to human nature, man seeks to address the effects rather than the causes. For example, this is aptly illustrated by trends in modern medicine. The treatment for one malady often leads to adverse side-effects, which can only be offset by taking this or that remedy, leading to further side-effects—and the cycle continues.
The misuse and mismanagement of the earth’s natural resources (by individuals, corporations and governments) have resulted in many disasters, having ecological and economic impact. Aside from the obvious problems of population displacement (both human and wildlife) and the “domino effect” of problems flowing from such upheaval, many other issues stem from the improper treatment and utilization of those resources.
Sometimes, even policies enacted to diminish the negative effects of human “progress” will backfire, or even fail, when it is a case of “too little, too late.” Regarding one such practice, known as “timber harvest,” the findings among leading scientists have led them to conclude, “Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity.” This is evidenced by the following:
• Half a century of aggressive fire suppression by the U.S. government has hampered the natural and beneficial processes of fire. Many areas have been adversely affected, becoming clogged with brush. Other kinds of trees are also now competing with the formerly-dominating larger species.
• In response to increasing fire threats, the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed solution was to grant logging companies greater access to land formerly allocated as National Forest land. The problem was that the logging companies only took the high-value timber, which consisted of the largest trees whose thick bark was naturally resistant to the normal, small fires that periodically occur in forests.
• The logging companies not only eliminated the fire-resistant trees, but they also left behind saplings and enormous heaps of sticks and other debris known as “slash.” The forest floor, deprived of the shade afforded by the larger trees, dries out more quickly. Temperatures also can get much hotter, converting slash piles and clearings littered with debris into easily-ignited “tinder.”
• As a result of the accumulation of these “fuels,” over many years of the combined practices of logging and fire-suppression, some forest fires have the potential to burn hotter and faster than the smaller fires. These smaller fires would otherwise periodically sweep through forest areas prior to the attempt to “regulate” forest fires. Ultimately becoming a much larger—and more difficult to control—“crown fire,” these fires consume the accumulated brush, and climb saplings to reach the limbs of larger trees.
As you can see, the picture is not very bright for the future of America’s forests. Even when problems are addressed, the outcome is ultimately determined by these factors: Addressing the problem in a timely manner; method of implementation; corporate best interest (as demonstrated above by the negligence of logging companies to follow through with all the steps necessary to ensure success, not just make money); community and personal involvement and accountability (because it is not solely the responsibility of the private sector).
Notice the following statistics: During the 2001 fire season, about 89,000 individual fires burned approximately 3.57 million acres of land throughout the U.S. As bad as this seems, the year 2000 was much more intense: 123,000 fires, consuming 8.4 million acres. This was by far the most active fire season on record.
In 2002, because of the ongoing drought in the U.S., and ice storms that downed several thousand trees and branches, fires surpassed those of the previous five years. Rainfall in the South, Southwest and East was far below normal. Conditions were ripe for hundreds of thousands of acres to ignite like a tinderbox loaded with fuel.
The East Coast was also dry because of several years of below-normal rainfall, resulting in an unusually high number of fires. But the worst conditions occurred in the West and Southwest, where the season began early and more vigorously.
Colorado State University’s Ronald Waskom, a water resource specialist, said, “If things don’t change, what we are going to see on the news this summer is fires.” And that is exactly what happened! By July 2002, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico had experienced the worst forest fires in their history!
The following extensive quotes come from an article in the Akron Beacon Journal: “Nature rules…firefighters can only watch in helpless amazement as miles of evergreen forest erupt in a furious orange blaze…bearing down on suburbs southwest of Denver” (“Colo. Firefighters powerless over nature,” June 13, 2002). Named the “Hayman Fire,” it has destroyed 618 structures and 137,000 acres of forestland. Forty thousand people were warned or had been evacuated.
“A fire is a chemical reaction that requires fuel, heat and oxygen…In a wildfire, combustion releases hot gases and particles that rise in a column into the atmosphere—30,000 feet high in the case of the Hayman fire. The fire creates its own wind as fresh air rushes in to replace the rising air. A large fire can generate hurricane-force winds of 120 mph.
“This propels the fire up the steepest mountain slopes. Even without direct contact with flames, this convective uplift can dry out, preheat and, in extreme cases, ignite plants in front of the wall of flames.
“The steeper the slope, the faster a fire will move and the hotter it will burn. A fire on a 30-degree slope will spread twice as fast as a fire on flat ground, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
“The fire releases large amounts of radiant energy, not unlike the sun. This phenomenon also preheats the ground ahead. So when the fire licks at shrubs and trees, they are fully primed to explode in flames.
“Scientists said the Colorado fires could burn for another month until they are drenched by the annual summer monsoon.
“However, rainfall cannot be guaranteed during a year in which precipitation already is at a 100-year low.
“‘It’s just very scary and way bigger than any of us ever thought a fire could spread in this country,’ said Wayne Baker, fire management officer for the Pike-San Isabel National Forest.”
At the beginning of the 2002 season, the worst fire in the state of New Mexico burned uncontrolled for several days. This fire marked an early start to the normal season. In 2000, the Cerro Grande blaze destroyed 235 homes and left 405 families homeless. This fire was intentionally set to burn off a potential fire hazard. It quickly burned out of control and, in about a month’s time, consumed close to 50,000 acres.
After a fire, there is potential for mass erosion due to the absence of grasses and bushes. The soil is exposed to rain and is washed away, causing even further problems—mudslides, flooding, ash plugging up small streams and rivers, etc. The courses of these small tributaries can even be changed due to debris. Sewer systems can become plugged and backed up, causing health problems.
Another contributing factor in this trend is the ever-increasing lack of personal concern and responsibility. As also evidenced by the traffic phenomenon known as “road rage,” people no longer exercise patience and self-control when confronted with problems. They simply allow their emotions to take over, leading them to commit irrational, illogical acts of violence—usually directed against whoever or whatever happens to be in their path.
This was evidenced recently, when a U.S. Forest Service worker started a fire in a National Forest area out of frustration involving problems in a personal relationship. The resultant blaze grew “into a wildfire of historic proportions” (“Forest worker indicted for starting wildfire,” CNN.com, June 19, 2002).
This is but one example of the disastrous effects of the disregard for the welfare of others, and the lack of appreciation for our environment and natural resources—attitudes that are rampant in today’s society.
Most readers can probably recall the popular ad campaign featuring “Smokey the Bear.” It was created in 1944 by the Ad Council, in an attempt to address this issue and to educate and involve the public in a direct way. Unlike most programs enacted to combat problems, this one, at least on the surface, sought to address one of the causes. Utilizing a slogan promoting personal responsibility—“Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires”—this “forest fire prevention campaign has reduced the number of acres lost annually from 22 million to 4 million” (“Forest Fire Prevention – ‘Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires’ (1944 – Present),” aded.org).
While there may have been other such attempts to create public awareness and involvement, this one has been, by far, one of the most visible, vocal and effective. And yet, the problem has not gone away.
What is ultimately the underlying cause of all of these disasters? why are they not going away?
Because human nature—which leads to greed, lust, corruption and a focus on self-interest—has not gone away. God’s Word, the Bible, shows that it will only grow worse as the age continues, with everyone doing what seems “right in his own eyes” (Prov. 21:2). This is why personal conduct continues to descend to lower and lower moral levels. Most people are only concerned with their own happiness, safety and well-being.
However, the Bible speaks of how “heat” will be used to get the world’s attention. Notice: “The Lord shall smite you…with blasting [hot winds bringing scorching (heat)]…And your heaven that is over your head shall be brass [lack of rain], and the earth that is under you shall be iron [rock hard because drought, heat and misuse of soil]” (Deut. 28:22-23).
The many conditions described in this verse are among the results of mankind’s 6,000 years of disobedience to God. They will only escalate as time goes on—culminating in the worst time of trouble that America has ever seen.
The good news is that, before man has totally destroyed the environment, God’s kingdom will be established and the world will learn how to properly manage and care for the earth’s resources God has provided!