A Natural Flame?

Amid all the wildfires in Western forests, the loss of hundreds of homes, and the heroism of 20,000 fire fighters, it's worth asking if this disaster can be called natural.

Yes, it's natural for dry lightening to strike dry undergrowth in a dry forest during a very hot, dry season. Very few of the 65 major blazes - with a scorched area twice the yearly average - were set by people.

But how much should we also blame these flames on dryness from global warming? And how much of the warming comes from human activity, whether industry or vehicle exhaust?

How much more should governments conduct "prescribed burns" of woody debris and scrub trees to prevent its build-up and avoid catastrophic firestorms? And how many homeowners have been told their dwellings lie in the path of a future forest fire - much like beach houses are vulnerable to hurricanes on the East Coast or homes in flood plains?

How many of these fires could have been prevented by devoting more government resources to spotting them earlier, creating more firebreaks, or similar measures?

These questions are worth asking in order to learn from this disaster - whether it is a natural one or not.

Humans do not have to be idle victims of nature, nor do they have to dominate it. Rather they can practice wise prevention, not out of fear but from understanding the long-term impact of human activity and - sometimes - letting nature takes its course.

One government estimate finds at least 39 million acres of Western forests and grasslands are "at high risk to catastrophic wildfire." That's the real fire alarm calling for action.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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