When the plane touched down in Montana last week, I barely recognized the landscape. Smoke blocked the view of the mountains and made everything look strange, eerie. As I drove from Bozeman to Great Falls, the familiar landmarks were blurry. I had returned from the thin air of La Paz, Bolivia, to the thick and smoky air of Montana and much of the west.
This has been a relentless fire season, beginning with the spring fire that closed the ski resort at Red Lodge, and continuing through the summer. Each week new wildfires were announced-some natural, some human-caused. Evacuations have become almost routine-Glacier Park on the east side, Essex, Heart Butte, and more. This hottest and driest summer on record is burning forests and grasslands, and displacing people and wildlife. And the smoke, which knows no boundaries serves as a reminder that we are interconnected.
In fact, much of the west is dry, drier than normal. California is experiencing a well-publicized drought and the state has imposed water restrictions on its huge population. Even Washington, normally a wet and green place west of the Cascades, is in a drought. And Holden Village, east of the mountains, has been evacuated because of fire.
On the one hand, fire is a natural part of a forest's life cycle, and without fire a forest will not thrive. Fire management philosophy has changed over the years to acknowledge that naturally caused fires should be allowed to burn, as long as they don't threaten buildings and people. But as population grows and spreads out, there is an increasing demand to put fires out. And in a dry season, there simply are a lot more fires.
We've seen the people fleeing the fires. We've seen the exhausted firefighters, who work long hours and are understaffed. We pray in our congregations and in our homes for relief-for rain, for favorable winds, for beloved places to remain, for the safety of firefighters. And we restrict our time outside-until the air is healthful enough to breathe again.
One friend tells me it looks like Los Angeles in the 1980's. Another says it is like Beijing today. It is a stark reminder that the things we so take for granted-like clean air to breathe-are vulnerable. It was ten years ago that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the gulf coast. There is a power in nature that overwhelms us from time to time. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires-they remind us of our vulnerability. And they also remind us of our responsibility to care for creation.
In the Bible, fire is a powerful force. It destroys, and it purifies. And it also enlightens. The burning bush introduced Moses to the Lord. The pillar of fire led the Israelites in the wilderness through the night. Fire is used to cook, and to provide light. But out of control, it has the power to displace and destroy.
As we move into September, let us pray for relief from fire. And let us care for those displaced by fire, harmed by smoke inhalation, and put out of work by this natural disaster. In this last week I have received word from many colleagues across the nation that they are praying for us all. We are in this together.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
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Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA