Unnatural Disaster: When Conservative Theology & The Free Market Meet Wildfires

And so you peek into the mountain where your desire goes
Spilt blood on this place it only echoes true all through the days
And so you peak into the mountain where your desire goes . . .
(Heartless Bastards, “The Mountain”)

“C-130 just roared over… on a bee-line to the #WaldoCanyonfire. Good to see the Air Force on the attack.” (from tweet posted at #waldocanyonfire). 

Last Tuesday afternoon, about three days into what had come to be called the Waldo Canyon fire, I watched from the high bluffs of my campus at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs as a sudden sustained gust of up to 65 mile-per-hour wind pushed a worrisome but contained fire in the hills below Pike’s Peak eastward. As I looked on from a distance, feeling the day’s record-setting 101 degree heat, the fire exploded over the rim of the hills, and raced down toward the residential areas in the foothills of the Northwest quadrant of Colorado Springs. By the time I left a few minutes later, the campus (about four miles to the east of the fire) was enveloped in acrid, suffocating smoke, and faculty in my university had left messages that they were fleeing up I-25, a corridor already clogged with smoke and traffic.

Several hours later, the fire had tripled in size, reaching some 17,000 acres. Two people and 347 homes had gone up in flames, and no one knew what the next day’s wind might bring. One dramatic photograph showed the fire raging in the hills above the famous skyward-reaching wings of the Air Force chapel. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of additional homes would have been torched without an overnight sustained effort by hundreds of skilled firefighters. One of the region’s most popular destinations for western tourist kitsch, the Flying W Ranch, fell early to the conflagration. Evacuation orders spread as quickly as the fire, reaching tens of thousands of residents, and everyone found themselves using the same words in conversations and Facebook posts: “surreal,” “horrifying,” and “apocalyptic.”

The fire struck especially hard in the geographic quadrant of the city that hosts many of the best-known religious activist organizations, and has attracted a large population of religious conservatives who see in Colorado Springs a center for the religious and political values they seek to espouse. Seven of the homes lost belonged to those who worked for one of the oldest of these organizations, The Navigators—including the current director of the organization.

As the terrible week for Colorado Springs residents progressed, the local media news cycle went through the usual narratives: worried reporting, shock, grief at the losses, praise for the heroic firefighters, and jubilation whenever reports of some giant military firefighting aircraft arriving in the region. Our local conservative politicians—allegedly fiscal hawks who despise federal authority and control—sprang into action to demand, and receive, massive federal material and financial resources for the region.

We were instructed to pray for rain, to await salvation via C-130 aircraft with Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems,* to understand that there must be some larger reason God had in mind for all of this, to remember those in need, to volunteer our time and resources, to be thankful for the brave firefighting soldiers on the front of this raging land war, and to be assured that ultimately we would rebuild bigger and better than ever. These disasters always call forth reassuring platitudes. Even those who distrust and mock them still crave them, as I did.

These pronouncements help us deal with the shock of the sudden and unpredictable destruction that fire (or tornadoes and floods in other areas) bring. But fires are different than tornadoes and other clearly natural disasters, because fires in the American West are necessary, inevitable, and healthy; an ecologically-cleansing process allowing for the renewal of natural lands. And fires such as Colorado Springs just experienced, while certainly natural disasters to a degree, are also man-made disasters, like the destruction leveled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It’s just that our religious platitudes of God’s wrath, and God’s reassurance, make it difficult to understand the indispensable human contribution to these catastrophes.

When humans specifically build into fire zones, rather than a natural force to be understood and directed away from highly populated areas, fire is an enemy to be fought with military terminology, metaphors, and resources, as Professor Lloyd Burton of the University of Colorado, Denver, pointed out in a recent Denver Post editorial:

… the news media mindset and resulting language of its discourse is saturated in metaphors of war. We are treated daily to visuals of ex-military aircraft bombing fires and structures with toxic fire-retardant. We have strong, courageous, well-trained and well-disciplined “fighters” in the field being coordinated by a top-down incident command system; and we use many of the same communications technologies and terms to implement tactical field maneuvers.

So war talk seems nearly as irresistible to reporters and government officials as is the visual coverage of suppression efforts. When we combine use of the war metaphor with the immediate suppression expectation, it casts fire in the role of relentless and implacable enemy. Anything less than its swift and total eradication is cast as a military defeat.

Environmental historians and experts on the history of fire have long explored the ecology of fire in various societies: what fire means, how it is controlled (or left to burn), how resources are allocated to deal with it. What they have dealt with less is the way in which the very emphasis on fire mitigation and maintenance, and reasonable regulation of development in natural fire zones—and in what they call the “wildland-urban interface”—meets resistance from a religious ethic of dominion over the earth that colludes with the libertarian free market enthusiasms of developers who skillfully sell to buyers seeking escape from the Gomorrah of urban America.

Nowhere is that more true than in Colorado Springs, which marries an activist grassroots religious conservatism, faith in (and reliance on) the military-industrial complex, and a historic western libertarian hatred of “big government”—combined with an economic reliance on big government. In a city sometimes referred to as the “Protestant Vatican” for its profusion of religiously conservative activist groups, unregulated housing developments into Wildland-Urban Interface zones have proliferated over the last generation, such that foothills and obvious fire zones boast some of the region’s most geographically attractive housing.

Regulations on developers have historically been light, and homeowners’ associations (according to one nationally known fire mitigation expert) have not always gotten on board with the very preventative mitigation measures which are essential to saving houses. Historically, there has been no regional or systemic state authority to assess risks in particular areas, meaning that housing expansion in fire zones, both locally and throughout the western U.S., have garnered a disproportionate share of private and governmentally subsidized resources over (at least) the last two generations. An ethic derived both from nineteenth-century manifest destiny and twentieth-century suburban developmentalism provides a powerful impetus to the sprawl that has expanded locally, both eastward towards the great plains and westward into the foothills and fire zones. And that same ethic will spur prayers for, and the insistence on, rebuilding “bigger and better than ever,” to recreate suburban housing developments in the wildland-urban interface.

In short, a combination of western libertarianism, historically weak governmental structures, and religiously-based desire to possess even the earth that is bound to burn (and to dispute the reality of global warming’s contribution to making fire zones much larger and more volatile than previously) set the stage for the disaster we have just experienced. That is not to discount the natural factors involved, or to ignore the personal tragedies of those who have lost homes and businesses, but to insist that at base a misapplied religious ethic has become part of a mix of factors that have left this region scarred. Maybe God is sending us a message after all; it’s just not one that comports with our national religious mythologies, nor one that free market conservatives, Christian and otherwise, can hear.

*The MAFFS actually proved ineffective when the wind gusts blew the fires to the housing developments in the foothills.

pharvey@uccs.edu'

Paul Harvey runs the blog Religion in American History and teaches history at the University of Colorado.