We have all seen the heart-wrenching pictures of people who have lost their homes to wildfires. Several years ago, we were in the area around Mount Lassen in California and saw how a very hot fire reduced a vast area to dust– including homes, cars, and electric power lines and towers. Of course, some people criticize God’s design when a wildfire devastates an area, but wildfires can be beneficial.
The National Science Foundation funded a 35-year study in Minnesota which showed that periodic wildfires can inhibit plant disease. Oak wilt is a fungal pathogen that can devastate groves of oak trees. The NSF study showed that areas that experience periodic wildfires have a much lower incidence rate of oak wilt than areas with no fires. The difference is striking, with a 765% reduction in oak tree mortality in burned areas over unburned areas.
The NSF report mentions that very little long-term research has been done on fire and plant disease interactions. We can’t blame God for poor design causing wildfires. Studies have shown that many wildfires are caused by poor human management of ecosystems. When people allow forest litter to pile up, the potential for destructive wildfires increases dramatically. How people maintain their properties contributes to wildfire damage to homes in residential areas. With climate change causing higher temperatures and severe droughts in areas with large human populations, wildfires will cause more damage.
The research shows that wildfires are a functional part of controlling invasive attacks on local plants in the natural world. So God’s design is not flawed, but human errors in managing what God has given us have brought great pain to many people. The question is whether we will learn from the past.
Science has given us tools to understand that wildfires can be beneficial in the natural world. Will we continue to promote ignorance of how the natural system works and bring tragic results to people living in areas vulnerable to wildfires?
— John N. Clayton © 2022
References: National Science Foundation Research News and the journal Ecology Letters