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When wildfires surround, they raise new questions about life, faith

Where I live, fire and water are the main considerations these days – too much of one and not enough of the other.

Were I to drive in any direction on the compass, I am guaranteed to confront a wildfire, and the Okanogan River is the lowest I’ve seen it in the 31 years I’ve lived on its banks.

As a journalist, I covered a wildfire for the first time in 1979, the year I married John Andrist and moved to the Okanogan. It was a devious fire, dodging and changing direction every time firefighters thought they had it beat.

I thought wild fire was a phenomenon, not realizing I was witnessing the advent of a new normal. It’s no longer a question of whether there will be fires, only a question of where and how terrifying.

Inevitably, every fire is followed by fireworks of finger-pointing, blame and anger. One of the stages of grief, I guess.

If we could only figure out whom to blame: the politicians who are clueless about environmental issues, the insurance companies that won’t pay up, the developers who put houses in crazy places, even the firefighters themselves who may not put the fires out quickly enough.

It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, second-guessing decisions of fire managers who are tasked with pitting limited human knowledge and resources against the unlimited power and vagaries of nature.

I am in awe of firefighters, from the bosses in command posts to the heroes on the ground and in the air.

Earlier this summer I was hiking with friends above Lake Bonaparte, near the Canadian border. We’d reached the ridge just as a Forest Service pickup drove up. We pointed out to the driver a plume of smoke a considerable distance up the valley in a deeply forested area, wondering if it were a new fire from the previous night’s storm.

“Yup,” he answered, “and in a few minutes you’re going to have a chance to watch smoke jumpers land on that fire.”

He’d barely finished speaking when a plane flew into the valley and two parachutes emerged.

“How will they get back once the fire’s out?” we asked.

“Walk,” he answered – untold miles through deep forest with their hundred-plus pound packs.

I spent an inordinate amount of time last week on social media as the Wolverine Fire surrounded Holden Village, where I was privileged to live and work for two-and-a-half years. The village was safely evacuated and its historic buildings saved, but the beautiful, surrounding forest burned.

The Holden community is global, comprised of people who may not even know each other but share the experience of having been in that sacred place at one time or another.

While they mourn the devastation, they console each other with the knowledge that regeneration begins even as the charred earth cools.

One evening last week, as the temperature began to drop after reaching triple digits, I sat with a friend at the hour when her father, who’d died the previous week, was being cremated.

With readings, prayers and songs, we contemplated the life-giving blessings of fire.

She’d chosen the Taizé song: “Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, never dies away.”

Then, as darkness fell, we went for a swim in Omak Lake. My late husband claimed the lake has healing powers, and I agree. I felt especially buoyant as the water lifted me onto a large rock, which seemed like an altar.

For a while anyway, the smoke had cleared and we contemplated the stars, the infinite number of fires that light our sky.

The next morning all hell broke loose with a lightning storm that swept through the region, sparking new fires, forcing evacuations, closing roads, burning structures, stretching firefighting resources beyond reason.

We don’t know how much worse it can get.

Yet a blessing that comes with age is that one’s faith is fortified by experience.

We will survive, and we will learn. Oftentimes too slowly, but we must and will learn the lessons that fire and drought have to teach us.

“Every New Season” is an email column I occasionally write as I contemplate this passage of my life. I’m posting it on Facebook out of consideration for those who, like me, struggle to keep up with their overstuffed email inboxes.

Mary Koch
Reprinted from “Every New Season” an email and Facebook column

Copyright © September 2015 - The Fig Tree