I have been following news coverage of the California wildfires, as have many of you. It is heartbreaking and frustrating. There was Our President, hugging people in the debris, because that's how we know he cares. There were commenters on Flickr, having a bitter argument about the environment, fatalism and the hand of God. This argument started when a commenter said, essentially, What do you expect? Build where there is not enough water... which is the southern California story for nearly 100 years now... and where the Santa Ana winds blow, and you will certainly see your home go up in flames eventually. And someone else added, This is Gaia's revenge. These people deserved what they got. And someone jumped in to say, You heartless bastards. I'd like to see your homes burned to the ground. And they were off.
They say that a surprising percentage of firefighters are actually firebugs, people who are obsessed with fire and want the opportunity to fight it or to be a hero or simply to be in its presence. Fire is fascinating. Who is not entranced by even a small flame, a modest blaze in a fireplace, a bonfire, or an inferno? Brush fires are a normal part of the ecosystem in some areas. I have read that there are some seeds that germinate only after a burn. That is small consolation to someone whose entire life seems to lay in charred ruins.
And of course, as is always the case in disasters, the poorest of the poor are the most vulnerable. Four bodies, believed to have been immigrants, were found near the Mexico border. Two more, a couple who were evidently trying to feel their home, were found at the top of a hill. Injuries to firefighters have not been reported as yet. Though the winds have subsided, a third of a million people are yet to return to their homes.
We Christians have multiple layers of meaning associated with fire, some of them quite positive. Of course, there are the fires of Gehenna, a narrow ravine south of Jerusalem where refuse was burned, used by Jesus and taken, down the ages, to signify hell. And then there is "hellfire and brimstone," a phrase snatched from a 17th century preacher who thought the best way to win souls for Christ was to quite literally scare the hell out of them. And then there is the flame of Pentecost. The Spirit of God, coming to rest on human beings in a way that evoked fire and flame... not hellish, but heavenly.
Prayers for the victims, and there are many. Prayers for the rebuilding, and it will be long and arduous. Prayers for the heavenly fire to take hold in our outreach to those who suffer.