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Michael Wickham

Fire and the future of forests

When the forest burns, soils are exposed to the rain, and erosion becomes a serious problem.

AUTOR 58/Michael_Wickham 15 DE FEBRERO DE 2018 09:54 h
Photo: Anna Labish (Unsplash, CC)

This article belongs to a series on environmental destruction. Read the introduction here.



‘A scorched peninsula’, the National Newspaper, August 3, 2035

The last remaining forest has gone up in smoke.

As a result of the dramatic month of July 2035, the few remnants of forest in Spain have succumbed to the fires that, for more than 20 years, have been consuming a large part of the forested area of the Iberain Peninsula. There was not much left to burn.

With the exception of the Portuguese forests (which have endured more thanks to radical changes in the care of their forests in the wake of the mortal wildfires of the summer of 2017) the last large plantation forests of pine and eucalyptus, planted over the centuries XIX and XX to exploit the wood, have disappeared. Over Spain hangs a grey haze, a large, dark ‘boina’ or ‘beret’, above a land that looks like the remains of a barbecue, with cities such as Burgos, Barcelona, Guadalajara and Jaen besieged by smoke.

There remain a few forest patches in the north of the country, more resistant to fire due to the natural mixture of endemic species, protected by expensive teams of security guards, as well as in some areas of the south west, in Extremadura, where the less dense and fire resistant endemic cork oak forests were not replaced so aggressively by the wild deforestation of two centuries of exploitation.

Why didn’t we pay attention to forestry experts and climate scientists? Lack of foresight? Malice and greed? What were the causes?

The diverse causes of forest fires were well known already at the beginning of the 21st century. Despite the usual simplistic headlines that journalists wrote with each fire, experts, the regional groups of forest firefighters, foresters and scientists agreed that the causes were several and complex.

The flight to the cities from the countryside as a result of the Spain’s rapid  industrialization beginning at the end of the 19th century is a triggering factor. Livestock no longer cleaned the fields, fallen branches were no longer collected for firewood, and large areas of non-endemic pine and eucalyptus forests were planted for the wood industry, replacing the native forest which was adapted to the different climates of the peninsula. The forest was overgrown, unmanaged, the weeds accumulated, increasing the combustion in any fire. In the past fires were relatively normal and did not have such serious consequences for the autochthonous forest.

But there are other causes of fires. Feuds between families, the increase in visits to the field for barbecues by city dwellers, (for example what caused the great deadly fire in Guadalajara in 2006, which brought to light the serious problem), the reduction of budgets for the surveillance and protection of the forests in the economic crisis between 2009 to 2015, and the progressive increase in temperatures (climate change).

When the forest burns, soils are exposed to the rain, and erosion becomes a serious problem, the soil surface being then almost impossible to replace. A recent example is California January 9, 2018, where the erosion of the soils where the vegetation was burned, which normally helps the rainwater to infiltrate the subsoil, led to avalanches and landslides.

You cannot plant trees if there is no soil surface. Global warming was already felt locally, with very dry forests and even a change in the rainfall patterns - more drought and torrential rains in any season. Scientists had already seen that the loss of tropical forest (Amazonas, Indonesia and the (East and Central Africa) have reduced tropical rains by breaking the water cycle of which the equatorial forest was an important part. It was also observed in southern Europe: less forest, changes in rainfall patterns.

A panorama now, in 2035, of a dry and deserted countryside, concrete cities with high rates of unemployment and marginalization, mini-police states to try to contain the restless and dissatisfied population. A fragile economy, with a large trade deficit having to import almost all food, and a failed Europe divided in two, the northern prosperous bunker and a south of poverty and discontent.

Why did we not react in time?

Spain at the beginning of the 21st century was more concerned about its territorial differences, its escape from the economic crisis, the consumption of products driven by a highly specialized industry in advertising, the fascination with the latest technology of communication, now obsolete forms of communication. A lot of communication on the screen, many images, many hoaxes, a lot of untested information, the disappearance of truthful, of honest and respectful journalism. And little by little the environment we lived in and depended on - without understanding that this was happening - was deteriorating. The tomatoes came from China in plastic envelopes, and the cured hams as well. A society too worried by the immediate, by today, and never thinking of tomorrow or the world of their children and grandchildren.



Returning to 2018:

The Bible says a lot about fire. Both figuratively, and literally. At the figurative level it is first indicative of the presence of God. It is especially evident in the burning bush, by which God speaks to Moses (Exodus 3: 2-6). A manifestation of God himself, since Moses moved away from what he saw because "he was afraid to look to God" (v.6). Yahweh also descends to Mount Sinai "in the midst of the fire" (Exodus 19:18, Deuteronomy 4: 11-12, 15, 4:33, 36). God speaks through fire. In the New Testament the apostle Paul speaks of the second coming of Christ as "in flames of fire" (II Thessalonians 1: 7), a vision that implies judgment as well as presence. The vision of the apostle John in Revelation is from the eyes of Jesus "resplendent as flames of fire" (Revelation 1:14, 2:18; 19:12), again in the context of judgment.

There are many other mentions of fire in the Bible. It is associated with the glory of God, the baptism of Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and with his anger against sin. It is also a vehicle of destruction that God uses, an image of purification, and more common as the wrath of God and his judgment, and hell. Fire is a powerful element, both figuratively, what it teaches us, and in its destructive effect. If it comes from God, it is a sign of his presence, and a form that he uses to destroy, to purify.

But when it is produced by man, it is almost always destructive.

The disobedience of the people of God and their search for regional support against the bigger bully (either Egypt or Assyria) and not to God, resulted in alliances that were their destruction, despite the warnings and advice of God’s messengers (Jeremiah 4: 26-28) .

Their kings and spiritual leaders ignored the prophets of God. The burned forests, the fields were razed, the land became infertile and eroded - difficult to recover even centuries later, despite the special hydrological technology of the nation of Israel today, and artificially maintained and water resources controlled by its military forces.

The prophet Joel offers us a similar panorama.

“How the cattle moan! The herds mill about because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep are suffering. To you, Lord, I call, for fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness and flames have burned up all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals pant for you; the streams of water have dried up and fire has devoured the pastures in the wilderness”. (Joel 1: 18-20, NIV).

This book of the prophet Joel in the Old Testament describes the devastating destruction of the plague of locusts, like a raging fire, a sign of God's judgment on his people. But it also speaks of repentance, of judgment of the nations, and of forgiveness and future blessing.

"Then you will know that I, the LORD your God, dwell in Zion, my holy mountain. Jerusalem will be holy, and foreigners will never invade her again. In that day the mountains will distill sweet wine, and milk will flow from the hills; the water will run through the streams of Judah. A fountain will sprout from the house of the LORD that will irrigate the Valley of the Acacias. But Egypt will be desolate, and Edom will become a desert, because of the violence committed against the people of Judah, in whose land they shed innocent blood. Judah and Jerusalem will be inhabited forever, by all generations. Will I forgive the blood they shed? Of course I will not forgive them! "The LORD will make his home in Zion!" (Joel 3:17-21)

I don’t want here to go into detail concerning eschatological aspects. But there are some that argue that the sooner the earth is destroyed before Jesus returns the better, and so there is no point in taking care of the earth. Another interpretation of the texts argues, as NT Wright says, that it is our responsibility, according to the Genesis mandate, to contribute to Christ’s work of salvation and restoration, not only of souls, but of all of creation. The earth will be completely renewed, restored, and we are already citizens of a kingdom, participating in its restoration, servants of the King.

The creation… "anxiously awaiting the revelation of the children of God, because she was subjected to frustration. This did not happen by his own will, but by the one who ordered it. But there remains the firm hope that creation itself must be freed from the corruption that enslaves it, in order to reach the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation still groans, as if in labor pains. "She still groans, as if in labor pains ..." (Letter from the Apostle Paul to the Church of Rome, in Romans 8:19-22).

Here he speaks of the creation awaiting its liberation, not its destruction.

But apart from this argument in favour of working now in the care of the earth, being part of our mission as children of God, caring for the earth and managing it wisely as good stewards, good 'faithful gardeners', we do it because we love what is of God, and what he loves. Sometimes our Christianity is too influenced by Greek philosophy, and we spiritualize everything, focusing on humans, and forgetting other living beings that God created and loves, as we clearly see in the story of the flood and Noah's Ark. God loves animals and plants. We must do the same.

A wake-up call in our day to love what God loves, to take care of what God has entrusted us to care for Him, to trust in Him and not in the temporal, the visible, the immediate, and ultimately to obey His word and recognize that He is sovereign God, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Only in Him is there life, eternal life and salvation for man. Only in Him is there reconciliation among men, and reconciliation with His creation, His land, which He has lent us to care for and to run.

"Behold, the Lord your God is the heavens, and the heavens of the heavens, the earth, and all that is in it." (Deuteronomy 10:14)

The purpose of our existence is to glorify God before all things. Not only in words and song, but as good stewards and caretakers of this wonderful land, which has been entrusted to us to manage. So if I take God seriously, if he really is my Lord, I will want to obey his word.



Brief note on the history of the Spanish forestry:

El País, July 15, 1978: “In 1940, just after the civil war, a National reforestation Plan of was set in motion in Spain, which planned the clearing and planting of 5,679,000 hectares over a period of one hundred years. Since that year, and until 1972, the total reforested area amounted to 2,658,700 hectares, which meant reaching 46% approximately of the goal, just in the first 32 years. Reforestation appears, therefore, as one of the major achievements of the Spanish regime of the time, which provided it, together with the policy of irrigation and reservoir construction, enormous lucrative opportunities and dividends of promotion and political propaganda”.

But what was never said is that, at the same time, the native forests were destroyed during those years for commercial use (mainly for the pulp industry), a totally negative balance in the forest area.

“In just the twenty-four Spanish provinces most affected by erosion 2,171,201 hectares of trees were lost during the last decade. The deforestation carried out in Andalusia is impressive, with an absolute decrease of 560,641 hectares, as well as in Murcia, Alicante and Valencia, with 323,650 hectares. The Canary Islands also lost almost half of their forests (47.2%) in the same period (local Canarian pine and laurisilva)'. Without foreseeing the ecological consequences, the owners of the land were offered 'non-returnable amounts of 8,000 pesetas per hectare for pine repopulation and 10,000 pesetas per hectare for eucalyptus trees”.

It is interesting to see how history repeats itself. In the oil industry, politicians who are against renewable energies, and therefore totally against the argument of man-made global warming, have great business interests for the short-term benefits of the consumption of fossil energy sources (especially coal and oil). The same thing happened in the history of the wood industry. Short-term benefit for a few, at the expense of the majority of the population and their future. In the political transition of the '70s and continuation of the repopulation initiated in the '40, those who drafted and continued the forestry policy, politicians of the old regime, had great business ties with the timber industry.




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