the Empathy List #67: On Fire

Christians and Climate Change

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Hey friend, Liz here.

​My home state of Colorado has officially entered wildfire season. Five “large” fires are burning as I write these words, making the sky hazy and air quality dubious.

Of course, I’m a Christian, which may lead some to assume I care not a whit about the natural world. Evangelicalism has not picked environmental preservation as a key theological (read: political) issue.

Yet I and many Christian scientists believe it is an essential tenant of the gospel, a way of extending gratitude to the God who made both us and the dirt we walk upon—not to mention a way for caring for our neighbors.

Is all this natural beauty necessary? No. But it’s available in abundance. The natural world is generous, and its generosity reflects back to us God’s own abundance. I believe that how we treat God’s gift matters. The way we respond to the gift shows us whether our priorities align with the one who gave the gift in the first place.

In the past, I have explored these issues in greater depth. I wrote an essay for Christianity Today about my belief that a Christian’s role, when it comes to the natural world, is to protect ecological diversity and to cultivate health within the environment we’ve been gifted. I’ve also written while living smack in the middle of wildfires, as they’ve ravaged my city and threatened my in-laws’ home, only a few miles from my own house.

Today, I want to share with you an essay I wrote for Geez Magazine in 2019, about the impact of one fire in particular, the Hayman fire, which for many years was the deadliest and most costly in Colorado—where wildfires are the norm
!—and about the woman who lit its first spark. I hope it convicts… and maybe even that you enjoy reading it. (Can we enjoy hearing about terrible things? I tend to think so. But then again, I’m a high-intensity enneagram 4, so I’m a weirdo. ;-))

Thanks for reading. Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant


“Hearts Ablaze”

By Liz Charlotte Grant

Apparently, it does not take much to set a forest fire—just one letter from an ex-husband, if you’re Terry Barton. Barton, in a moment of distress, lit a match and dropped the letter in a campfire ring during her shift near Lake George on June 8, 2002.

At the time, the whole state was under a total burn ban, as in, if a camper even thinks of charring a hotdog over an open flame, hundreds of acres of forest could catch—in 30 years, Colorado’s state parks had not been as dry as they were on that windy day in June. The state was in the fourth year of a historic drought, with inches of crisp needles and brush layered on the forest floor: in other words, the perfect fuel.

Barton worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a forestry technician in Colorado, which hosts 880,000 acres of state parks open to the public. Barton first reported her arson as a runaway campfire; she had smelled it in the air, she claimed, and radioed it in. By the time other rangers discovered arrived on the scene, it was 20 feet x 20 feet and licking the treetops. Firefighters were called too late, and the fire spread unchecked. By day 2, 1,200 acres had burned; by day 3, 60,000 acres had been lost when 50-mile-per-hour winds carried it across the landscape. Locals reported escaping 100-foot-tall flames, and a plume of smoke created its own weather patterns. Ash from the fire fell on downtown Denver a hundred miles away and stretched across four counties. The governor, viewing the fire from a helicopter, said, “It looks as if all of Colorado is burning”: Colorado’s own Armageddon. In the end, the flames took 138,000 acres of public land and cost the state millions in firefighting costs, not to mention the homes and handful of lives lost.

Fires have always burned in Colorado as a natural and predictable part of the ecosystem; but now, due to the rising temperatures of climate change, these wildfires have become more extreme, most costly, more devastating. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, earlier snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains due to warmer spring temperatures has led to dryer conditions overall in the West during the summer months; “For much of the U.S. West, projections show that an average annual 1 degree Celsius temperature increase would increase…the burned area per year as much as 600%.” Additionally, “large wildfires in the United States burn more than twice the area they did in 1970, and the average wildfire season is 78 days longer.” In the Southwest, the projections are even more severe, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “…the Southwest’s season of fire potential [could] lengthen from seven months to all year long.”

In the years since Barton’s blaze, named the Hayman Fire, over 50 more fires have rolled through Colorado in waves. Firefighting has also shifted, response times quickening to keep up with the threats. In 2012, a fire burned in my city in Colorado; I was six months pregnant with my daughter as smoke filled the sky and temperatures held steady in the 100s. 32,000 residents evacuated and 346 homes were leveled by the flames, including a family from our church who lost their wedding album, baby clothes, and original artwork, along with the usual jewelry, shoes, clothes, dishes, and flatware.

Still, the Hayman Fire set records as the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, and the aftereffects continue to resound throughout the landscape. As the Forest Service’s case study makes clear, “No human alive during the Hayman fire will live long enough to see the burned area recover…” Forests once so thick you could not see your hand in front of your face became charred plains. Nearly twenty years later, the land has been replanted with trees placed by hundreds of volunteers, who have donated over 40,000 hours to replant and rebuild the ecology of the area. Still, mitigation is ongoing and incomplete. A resident of a cabin that burned in the Hayman Fire summed it up: “The lady didn’t imagine how much heartbreak she would cause.”

Barton eventually confessed. She served five years in jail for her crime. Investigators contested her story of the love letter from an estranged husband as a rock in the campfire ring was discovered to be tipped so that a hole encouraged the flames to escape (and no paper remains were found). “We’re always in the hole [financially],” Barton pled to a judge in 2018, begging for relief from monthly payments and to be released from probation. The judge did not relent; Barton continues her probation, and she will pay $150 a month until she dies (or reaches the $42 million owed to the state). In other words, she will never be able to make full restitution for her ever-increasing debt, just like the rest of us.

(Originally published in Geez Magazine, Issue 54 “Climate Justice,” Fall 2019)



#1

Meet the fastest woman in America. Olympian-to-be Sha’Carri Richardson dominated the 100 meter Olympic trial only a few days after the death of her biological mother. That’s one bad ass way to channel your grief!

(Plus, her hair, her nails, her make-up! I’m rooting for you Sha’Carri!)

“The 21-year-old sprinter stunned the world this weekend after winning her 100-meter heat and securing a coveted spot as part of the U.S. women's team for next month's Tokyo Olympics.”

Harper’s Bazaar | Read more…


#2

I’m thinking about extremism lately. Fear seems to root any extreme political ideology.

For example, I keep thinking about the Atlantic’s essay about “the liberals who won’t quit lockdown.” Every time the supermarket doors part and I step inside, I wonder if I’ll be confronted for not wearing a mask, even though I’m fully vaccinated. Read more at The Atlantic…

Then on the other side are conservative anti-vaxx organizers like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who shot a “fake news” documentary specifically targeted at an audience of black Americans, which I find concerning on many levels. Read more at NPR…

It’s got me wondering, how does fear lead me to extremes in my own life? And who benefits when I swing to one side or the other?


#3

This cracked me up.

One author suggests some potential titles for a sequel to Rachel Hollis’ bestseller, Girl, Wash Your Face:

“Girl, Dry Your Face

Girl, You Also Rubbed Your Face More Vigorously Than Would be Typically Advised by a Women’s Magazine, So Your Face Is Kinda Red Now”

McSweeney’s Internet Tendency | Read more…


#4

Critical race theory is getting a lot of attention lately. So what is it?

And why is it a driving force within conservative evangelicalism right now? (Looking at you, Southern Baptist Convention.)

Antiracism author Ibram X. Kendi explains:

“Critical race theory emerged among lawyers and legal scholars who recognized that despite being in this post–civil rights America, racial inequity and disparity still existed and persisted. For them and for critical race theorists, the aim was to examine those structures, those laws, those policies, so that we can uncover the structures of racism. And obviously, critical race theory has extended out to other disciplines. Personally, I think that Republicans specifically chose to attack critical race theory because they felt that they could define it more easily than other terms. Since they couldn’t come out and say, ‘Oh, those people who are challenging systemic racism are a problem.’ They couldn’t say, ‘Those anti-racists are a problem.’ So they’re defining critical race theory at the same time they are attacking it, and critical race theorists are like, ‘That’s not how we define it.’

Slate | Read more...


#5

Don’t judge a book by its gender.

One writer explores the norms of celebrity memoirs (spoiler: female celebrities “tell all,” whereas the dudes write whatever they want).

“For readers, celebrity memoir appeal lies in the juicy gossip and name dropping, and the chance to peek inside and live, if only for 500 pages, the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous. Social media, reality television, celebrity gossip blogs, and the popularity of TMZ-style tabloid journalism have created an insatiable desire to know more about our favorite celebrities. Celebrity memoirs help fulfill this desire. Sometimes, unfortunately, we learn a little too much about our favorite stars. After reading Carrie Fisher’s The Princess Diarist, her third memoir, I am unable to watch Star Wars without thinking about all the coke Fisher said was consumed on set. I imagine the film’s stars hollowing out lightsabers to use like giant straws to blow rails with. (That’s not how the force works!)

While it’s easy to dismiss celebrity memoirs as guilty pleasure reads or unworthy of serious literary consideration, you cannot deny the genre’s popularity. One of the bestselling celebrity memoirs of all time, former first lady Michelle Obama’s 2018 release, Becoming, is still on the The New York Times bestsellers list and has sold more than 10 million copies.”

…and when you consider that average book sales range from 500 to a couple thousand, that number is staggering.

Longreads | Read more…


Just for Fun…

Miss Piggy is the OG “lifesty” influencer.

(I have a soft spot for that pig, thanks to my mother’s fandom! ;-))