If you’ve turned on the TV to watch the news any time in the last month, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a story about the wildfires that are raging in California. Even if you live thousands of miles away, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about the devastation, or a celebrity who had to evacuate, or the electric company turning off power for safety. You’ve heard something.
Most people are alarmed when they see the devastation, but these headlines aren’t the half of it. Within the last month there have been at least 6 major fires that burned over 300 acres each, the Kincade fire burning over 75,000 acres. What most headlines don’t tell you is that this year alone there have already been over 5,000 wildfires in the state of California.
This number seems like it has increased over my lifetime and the scientific data agrees. According to a study in the journal Earth’s Future, the annual area of burned land in California has increased five-fold since 1972. In that same time, the size of fires burned during the summer months has increased nearly 800%.
Fire is a relatively simple concept to understand scientifically. It is a chemical reaction called combustion that releases heat and light. In order to continue burning it must have a continual supply of oxygen and some sort of fuel. Once this fuel is heated to its ignition temperature, the oxygen and fuel are burned through the process of oxidation. The rapid oxidation, transfer of electrons, through the chemical process of combustion is exothermic. Exothermic means that the chemical reaction releases heat. This heat then keeps the reaction at or above the ignition temperature so that the reaction can keep going.
But this doesn’t explain the massive increase in fires in California (and honestly all over the planet, notably the Amazon rain forest) over the last 50 years. Something that does is the 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit average increase in temperature during summer months in Northern California during that same time. This may seem like a small change, but it has made a large impact. Every small rise in heat speeds up evaporation which dries out soil, trees, and vegetation. Once they are dried out they are basically primed to be set on fire. Even during years when there is a higher level of rain, the intense heat counteracts it and it’s like the rain never fell in the first place.
This fuels the summer fires, but then fall rolls around which is the time of year that California experiences strong winds, known as the “Diablo winds” or “Santa Ana winds”, depending on what part of the state you’re in. These winds can gust above hurricane-force and can increase the spreading of the wildfires. As the air is compressed, these winds tend to heat up which only exacerbates the dry vegetation problem, which is just a tinderbox waiting to be lit.
I’ve discussed how the climate has made the area like a perfect storm for these kinds of tragedies, but even still, the fires must have an ignition point. These fires all started with a single spark. Some were from an old cigarette butt, others from electrical sparks. One fire last year was started by a rancher trying to take care of a wasp’s nest, but the hitting of his hammer and stake created a spark that lit a nearby patch of grass. These fires can be started in the smallest and simplest ways, almost never with any malicious intent.
Unfortunately, this is also how sin works. We tend to tell ourselves, it’s just one little thing, there is no way that it could cause that much damage. Few people intend to cause others pain, but often that is the result. Many times we are not even around to see the hurt that we have caused with our sins.
I’m not the first to think of this comparison, In the book of Isaiah it is written, “For wickedness burns like a fire; It consumes briars and thorns; It even sets the thickets of the forest aflame and they roll upward in a column of smoke.” (Isaiah 9:18)
It may take months or years for the repercussions of our sins to manifest, but every single sin impacts others. It is said that every sin hurts 3 people: God, ourselves, and the people of the body of Christ. When we commit these sins we are often only thinking of ourselves. We might weigh the benefits versus the consequences in our own lives, but we very rarely think of the other two aspects.
First, we have the community of the body of Christ. Similar to the wildfires, it only takes one spark to start a barrage of devastation. Once the fire is burning, it will spread quickly. When others are hurt, they often unintentionally spread that pain to those around them. They then cause pain to others and the cycle just burns on and on. But like I said, it’s not something we think about.
We also almost never think of our God as we sin. I know if I actually took the time to think about what I was doing every single time that I sinned, I would be a lot less likely to follow through. If every time I was about to do something wrong, I took a second to think about how I was going to be hurting the relationship I have with God, the God who loves me unconditionally, the God who died on a cross for me, the God who breathed life into creation for me… Why would I ever sin? Why would I ever hurt Him that way? Why?
But the truth is that we are a selfish people and we do sin. It happens all the time; we do things without thinking. So today I just encourage you to slow down; think about your actions. I urge you to think about whether your actions are spreading kindness and healing or whether they are just perpetuating the wildfire of sin and pain that seems to be everywhere in our broken world. Then take a second and think about how your actions impact your relationship with God. Are you growing closer to Him or putting a giant wall of fire between you two? One small wrong might be just the spark needed to destroy something beautiful.
I hope that you will also join me in prayer this week for all those affected in California. Those who had to evacuate, those who lost everything, and the fire fighters who are making so many sacrifices to keep others safe. I pray that the Lord will protect them and keep them, and I pray that the weather will change so that the fire fighters’ work becomes easier.