After the Burn

Mom always told me not to play with matches. But today, I'm starting fires.

It's late in the morning, and already there's a charred ruin behind me. Smoke … so thick I can barely breathe. Flames lick the sides of the little prairie. Crackle-crackle! Pop! It sounds like a catfight in a brown paper bag. The fire gulps and swallows everything in its path.

The wind suddenly shifts, and the flames roar toward me. Ashes float through the air. Heat scorches my face.
This spring I'm helping burn the natural areas at my local arboretum. Last fall I spent two days in training classes, then took a rigorous certification test so I wouldn't burn down anything I wasn't supposed to. I learned about wind shifts, the action of fire, the right conditions in order to burn, and how to stay out of the way of flames.

It all culminated here, today, when I donned a yellow fire suit, strapped on a backpack water sprayer, and headed off with the hired crew to help set things aflame.

Visitors to the arboretum—some horrified, some intrigued—stop to watch. Others attempt to continue their routine walks, which take them into the path of the smoke and flames. Part of my job is to keep an eye out for people who move into danger and keep the area clear. Another is to explain why we burn.

Although our fires are intentional, burning the land is a part of the natural cycle God set in motion with creation. Lightning strikes once set the prairies of Illinois ablaze, wiping away the old brush and weedy growth and warming the earth for the richly diverse wildflowers and grasses to sprout and grow. They erased an old version of the landscape, leaving it an empty blackboard, ready to chalk the sums of a new growing season upon it.

When civilization got a toehold, well-intentioned settlers suppressed the fires. Without the flames, the native plants were strangled. Prairies filled with brush and trees. Wildflowers diminished.

When fire did break out, it ran wild, fueled by too many years of built-up tinder. Pick up the newspaper and you'll see the effects of wildfires. They're destructive, frightening things. Often, they're tragic. Yet, the burned-over land recovers, coming back as a new landscape full of surprises.

Flames often sweep over my life. Sometimes, I see them coming. Other times, they catch me unaware. It might be a bout of depression that leaves the landscape of my life desolate and ashed. I've been blindsided by the sudden death of friends, loved ones who have cancer, the ravaging effects of bad decisions I've made that come back to blister and singe.

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