Paul Harvey on the Colorado Wildfires

Paul Harvey, who lives and works in Colorado Springs, has written the best reflection I have read on the Colorado wildfires.  You must read his “Unnatural Disaster: When Conservative Theology & The Free Market Meet Wildfires.”   It is a masterful synthesis of personal narrative, environmental history, and American religious history. The snippet pasted below does not do the essay justice:

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.