By John D. Pierce

Warnings are everywhere out West — from flashing roadside signs to Smokey the Bear working overtime.

Fire danger is high according to every indicator — and smoke from existing wildfires in forested lands travels hundreds of miles according to the winds.

Those who manage such devastating wildfires face the challenges of risking lives to protect others in some situations while at other times allowing fires to run their intended courses.

Human carelessness in a moment’s time as well as long-term causes related to global warming create serious threats. Signs in and around national parks and other forested areas plead for responsible actions:

“Don’t drive cars onto grass.”

“Check loose trailer chains to avoid creating sparks.”

“Smoke inside car or home, and extinguish cigarettes appropriately.”

“Build campfires only in designated areas.”

Danger and destruction from such human-caused, fast-moving fires have lasting effects and deserve every effort to prevent them from occurring.

However, not all wildfires are enemies of the land.

Forest fires, often caused by lightning, are a part of the natural process of wilderness renewal.

Essential to ecosystems, they thin and refine forests and meadows — though initial blackened settings are unattractive and seem absent of life.

Last week our Nurturing Faith Experience participants witnessed some of the ways wildfires impact nature and society in both negative and positive ways.

Helicopters dipped water from Flathead Lake just west of Glacier National Park and doused a fire near a populated area. While on a boat tour of Lake McDonald in the park we watched with amazement as a wildfire broke out on a nearby mountain.

Our 92-year-old interpretive ranger expressed no alarm — suggesting he’d seen a few in his time — and announced that the lesson before our eyes was better than anything he might tell us about forest fires.

Our time in the park presented a lesson in contrasts. It was remarkable to see a mountain ablaze and then to walk where earlier fires have produced new life.

The cones of lodgepole pines, we learned, require intense fire for reproduction. Fresh stands of young trees rise in bright greenness below their charred ancestors kissed by intense flames a few years ago.

Natural thinning clears what would become excessive fuel for a more-destructive fire in the future.

And the fire-produced nutrients and space provide for the growth of colorful wildflowers and other plants.

It takes time, but restoration comes in lovely ways.

The lessons here for our own lives are obvious as well.

We hold responsibility for our careless acts which are often destructive. These are inexcusable.

On the other hand, the natural course of life brings its share of fiery forces that char our lives and leave us fearing what might be left.

Yet we all have underbrush to be cleared so better things might grow.

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