Wildfire’s Dangerous Renewal

Awe and lessons from Peshtigo, Yellowstone, and Fort McMurray. /

He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants. –Psalm 104:4

The Fort McMurray fire seared its way across Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, in early summer 2016, dominating the news cycles. A dry winter had left little snowpack, while low humidity and high temperatures set the stage for the dramatic events. Beginning May 1, 2016, this giant fire forced the evacuation of 88,000 people and covered more than 1.5 million acres before it was declared “under control” on July 5. Just after that fire was coming under control, wildfires erupted near Los Angeles, California, that have lasted for weeks.

The Fort McMurray fire was the most expensive disaster in Canadian history. In terms of burned acreage, it was about the same as the worst recorded wildfire in North American history. But the only deaths reported were those of two teens whose SUV crashed into a logging truck during the evacuation. The Peshtigo fire, which started the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, offered little escape.

In the fall of 1871, a heat wave baked the prairie states. Grasses dried, soil cracked, trees stressed and died in an ongoing drought. No air conditioners came to the rescue. No frozen drinks and cool movie theaters abated the heat. The central United States waited for relief. People and animals alike took whatever cooling they could get. On October 8, the great heat on the plains generated massive winds. Thunderstorms formed. Here and there, fires from lightning or human activity caught the vegetation like tinder. Crown fires broke out in woodlands. Grass fires, renowned for their velocity, sped across the prairie land.

This prairie fire spread across the landscape, driven by massive fronts of moving air. It raced across ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 55 / August 18, 2016
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 55: Seeking silences, Yellowstone's extreme life, and the ironies of wildfire. /

  2. Traveling into Silence

    A journey into two of the quietest places on earth. /

  3. Life in the Cauldron

    Meet the hearty tenants of Yellowstone’s deadly hot springs. /

  4. Christ as a Gardner

    “I never noticed it until they died.” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 55: Links to amazing stuff.

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