Forest Fires and Dominion

Massive wildfires claim millions of acres of North American forests annually. Houses and businesses are destroyed. Human and animal lives are lost. Billions of dollars are spent trying to control the fires. People shake their heads and wonder at the cause of such devastation. Many Christians will claim, “Adam’s sin is the ultimate cause. This destruction is part of the Curse.” Then many will throw up their hands reflecting a so-there’s-nothing-we-can- do-about-it attitude.

Christians who take such a position are like Job’s friends: right but wrong. All suffering is because of sin, but God was not specifically punishing Job, a man He claimed “was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” God was teaching Job—and us—spiritual lessons. Job’s “miserable comforters” did not represent God correctly (Job 42:7-8). The Curse may be the ultimate reason behind the wildfires’ destruction, but the nothing- we-can-do-about-it attitude is a copout. Christians who hold such a position fail to recognize the God-ordained relationship between man and the creation.

The Big Burn

Wildfires in the American west are nothing new. The dead leaves and undergrowth of many forests naturally catch fire on a regular basis. Since the fuel has only accumulated for a few years, the fire does not burn long nor is it extremely hot as it spreads along the forest floor. The low, rapidly moving fire removes the debris on the forest floor and scorches the bottom of tree trunks, but usually does not kill mature trees. New undergrowth is quickly reestablished, and the forest goes on.

In 1910 a number of small fires were burning in the northern United States and southern Canadian forests. The US National Forest Service (established five years earlier) had been fighting some of them with a modicum of success. It was understaffed, underfunded, and undertrained for the job. The summer of 1910 had been exceptionally dry and hot. In August, hurricane force winds caused many of the small fires to merge into The Big Burn, which is believed to be the largest fire in American history. Over 3 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut, was burned within 2 days. Several towns were completely destroyed, others significantly damaged. Over 80 people died. The weather changed. Rain and snow extinguished the blaze virtually overnight.

Stories of heroic fire fighting and narrow escapes from The Big Burn filled newspapers. Government money flowed into the US Forest Service. They were to prevent such devastation from ever happening again. They officially adopted the policy: immediately extinguish any forest fire.

A few years later a bear cub escaped a fire by climbing a tree. Rescued and named “Smokey”, he became the US Forest Service’s mascot. On a 1944 poster, wearing a Forest Service hat and blue jeans, he premiered the slogan “Smokey Says—Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” as he poured water on a campfire. In 1947 his message changed to “Remember…Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” Still in use, it is the longest running and most recognized ad campaign. It is also very successful.

Although well intentioned and seemingly making sense, the let-no- forest-fire-burn policy of the past 100+ years has literally fueled today’s fire disasters. The amount of undergrowth, dead branches and leaves on the forest floor has become thick. When it eventually catches fire, the blaze is hot and the flames high. It spreads rapidly and is extremely destructive. Such fires are difficult to control, and if conditions are favorable for the blaze, control can be impossible. One must wait for the weather to change. But unlike what happened to end The Big Burn, the weather may favor the fire for weeks.

Biblical Dominion

Scripture teaches that earth and its fullness is the Lord’s, but from the beginning He granted humans the privilege and responsibility of caring for it. It was Adam’s responsibility “to dress and to keep” the Garden of Eden as it met his needs (Genesis 2:15). God told Adam that he and his progeny were to subdue and have dominion over the physical world (Genesis 1:26-30). Scripture has abundant examples of humans using the physical world, and God often directs man to plant crops, build houses, dig wells, and the like. God expects us to use our dominion over the physical world to meet our physical needs.

Scripture repeatedly tells us to work and condemns the sluggard who refuses. Except for some broad moral guidelines, what we are to do and how we are to do it is not delineated. Part of being created “in His image” is that we have intelligence. Having it, we are expected to use it. What we can and cannot, should and should not do as we seek to have the physical world meet our physical needs is something we must use our intelligence to determine. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t.

About 50 years ago scientists determined that the no-forest-fire policy was developing dangerous tinderboxes and suggested ways to deal with the problem. But images of raging fires and destroyed forests, along with Smokey’s success in communicating his negative-forest-fire message, have hampered changes. In 2001 Smokey’s slogan changed to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” The subtle shift was, in part, to suggest that there are good and bad fires in nature. Where they have been adopted, the good fires of controlled burns and firebreaks have helped to restore an ecological balance and have curtailed massive destructive blazes. These measures, however, have met with limited public acceptance. Opposition is especially keen among some fire fighters who make handsome salaries fighting massive blazes, but would earn far less dealing with preventive measures.

When most Christians think of God giving humans dominion over the physical creation, they think of farmers producing food and perhaps the energy efficiency of their homes. Our God- ordained position of physical world dominion is actually much larger. This simplified glance at the North American forest fire phenomenon only begins to reflect the complexity and extent of the dominion we exercise over the physical world. Also, it only hints that what was once considered wise can change to not-so-wise and even wrong.

Many Christians find such far-reaching concepts uncomfortable. Some say, “Just point me to the verse and then tell me what I’m supposed to do.” Our dominion over the physical world does not work that way. We have to use our God-given intelligence to determine how we should exercise that dominion. In the next few articles, Lord willing, I plan to deal with some Scriptural concepts and present practices that Christians need to consider as we exercise dominion over God’s world.

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By William Pinkston

Mr. William Pinkston teaches science at Bob Jones Academy in Greenville, South Carolina. He is a member of Faith FPC.