Editor’s note: see The Living Church’s reporting on the Fort McMurray fire here.
For the past few months, the global news cycle has been filled with a number of violent and awful events. The Fort McMurray fire now stands as a particular kind of spectacle, one that came with very little cost to human life, but nonetheless placed an entire city under life-threatening duress and unprecedented crisis.
The largest evacuation in Canadian history will be an event that none of us forgets. The visual horror of 100-foot flames climbing into the sky, the haunting darkness that overtook the city in the early afternoon, and the widespread panic of the total evacuation have been traumatic for those who were there that day. School kids had to be reunited with their parents, in some cases it took days; the entire hospital was evacuated by air and land; the elderly from care homes spent hours on buses — every complication one can imagine in emptying an entire city in hours happened on May 3.
I travelled north with my wife and four children and spent the night in an industrial trailer. Early the next morning we drove south through the city on our way to safety. Countless vehicles had been abandoned along the highway, and the entire city seemed empty and smoldering. Like everyone else, we wondered if we were witnessing the final moments of our community and, by consequence, life as we had known it.
We soon learned that while a number of communities had been devastated, the majority of the city escaped with little damage. Upon our return six weeks later, it was astonishing and confounding to behold just what exactly the fire had destroyed. In some neighborhoods, concrete foundations filled with rubble and ash were all that remained of entire blocks of houses. And yet, just across the street, houses appeared entirely untouched. Likewise, the wildfire burned streaks through the forest in the valley, leaving strips of burned and unburned trees running across the hills. In some cases it leapt up into the aspen and spruce canopy; in others it burned quickly through the underbrush, leaving the taller trees unscathed. The fire jumped across one of Canada’s largest rivers, but somehow turned away from two lane roads. I have yet to hear a complete explanation as to how my own house, only meters from the crest of the ridge, was not consumed by the blaze.
It has become customary to speak about the fire as if it were an irrational and capricious beast. Yet we know that wildfire follows an intense, though difficult to perceive, logic. The direction and force of the wind, the terrain, the fluctuating temperature and humidity, forest composition — all these conditions and more conspired to produce this incredible fire. Like a river tumbling down a mountain, then carving a valley and eventually meandering across a plain, wildfire takes the most reasonable course, even if we are not party to all its reasons.
The human component too can be difficult to understand. We do not know how this story would have ended without the incredible efforts of firefighters and support workers. Fort McMurray is a mining city, and many people were trained in evacuation protocols, which no doubt contributed to the successful evacuation of 90,000 people.
But I was also told that two large undeveloped tracks of land were critical in sparing the city. Their lack of development is due to a complicated collision of factors: poor economic conditions, bureaucratic delays, and countless other uninteresting and mundane occurrences. We are now grateful for every one of these factors, no matter how irritating and frustrating they may have once seemed.
That some people have their houses and others do not is itself an outcome related to complex chains of causes and effects that seem just as mysterious and random as the fire itself. While touring a destroyed neighborhood, in a rather distant tone, my friend noted that he and his wife had almost purchased one of the incinerated homes we drove by.
Was it pure chance they did not buy that home? Were they guided by a higher power? In this way, the wildfire swept through all of our lives in astonishingly unequal fashion, and among the rubble lies a heap of confused and unformulated questions — which quickly become theological.
Wildfire can be a symbol for the seeming contingency and chaos of our lives, a powerful visual demonstration of how our lives comprise endless accumulating occurrences that might easily have turned out otherwise. Since the fire our heads have been spinning with all of the possible alternative outcomes, and yet we are now living within the settled reality of what has in fact happened.
This reality means very different things to different people. Already competing narratives have emerged to make sense of the apparent chaos: Climate karma is one possible explanation, mostly touted by people from faraway places. A milder form of this judgment has been to turn the Fort McMurray fire into a teaching moment on climate change and its escalating consequences. The more local story has been built around the ready-made images that fire provides: rising from the ashes, death and rebirth, cleansing and renewal. We can rule out none of these, but neither do they provide much explanation to those who most feel the fire’s inequity and prejudice.
As a pastor it has been striking to listen as Christian people have come to terms with this event. The big questions — Why would God let this happen? Or why did some lose everything and others nothing? —lurk in the background of all our minds, but most people in our parish are saying similar things: They are grateful to God that they are alive, that everyone managed to escape the flames, and that they still have the ones they love. Such gratitude has inspired many to be incredibly generous to those in need. In essence, the fire revealed to us the simple truth, but with a renewed clarity, that our lives and indeed our world are in God’s hands. In many cases, it is those who lost everything who have grasped this reality most profoundly, and those of us who lost little have been carried and uplifted by the depth of their faith.
Since the days of John Toland and the English Deists, it has been common to malign this kind of piety, as if God were somehow party to the unequal distribution of fortune and circumstance. But Bishop Joseph Butler’s clear-eyed response is still striking.
Indeed he appears to bestow all his gifts with the most promiscuous variety, among creatures of the same species: health and strength, capacities of prudence and knowledge, means of improvement, riches, and all external advantages. And as there are not any two men found of exactly like shape and features: so it is probable there are not any two of an exactly like … situation with regard to the goods and evils of life. … Yet notwithstanding these uncertainties and varieties, God does exercise a natural government over the world. (“Analogy” in The Works of Bishop Butler, ed. by David E. White [University of Rochester, 2006], p. 264)
Such tortured sentences can easily conceal Butler’s simple point, that God is present and at work amidst the incredible and even mystifying variety of creation. No single person, thing, or instance in time is alike or equivalent, and yet every moment is an opportunity for God’s people to grow in and receive anew God’s grace. Divine providence is in “every way incomprehensible” (p. 220), but in the Scriptures God “has given us an account of the world, in this one single view, as God’s world” (p. 283).
There was something biblical about seeing our world on fire. Even if we cannot quite answer the question of why the fire was permitted to do what it did, people of faith have still found coherence and consolation in God’s providence and in the words of Scripture. We have been humbled, shaken, yet delivered — these are simple facts — and we felt God’s grace in each of those moments. A few Sundays ago, a holy elder in our parish, who lost everything, stood before the congregation and read from Isaiah while the people silently nodded their heads:
For you shall not go out in haste,
And you shall not go in flight;
For the Lord will go before you,
And the God of Israel will be your rear guard. (Isa. 52:12)
We had certainly packed our vehicles in haste during our departure, but most of us sat motionless in traffic for hours. That this man in particular could enter into these words is a striking witness to the power of God’s Word. Even more, to know that people around the world (who often face much direr circumstances than us) have entrusted their fragile lives to the same Lord reveals just how deep the words of Scripture run. These words embrace both life and death, joy and sorrow: in God’s world, Christ is all in all, and there is simply no place we can go where he will not be with us.
However various our circumstances, there is room for all of us in these words, as the God of Israel, the Lord of all creation, continues to humble, uplift, and sustain us.
The featured image comes via the Twitter account of the Edmonton Sun.