A few years ago Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada was named that country’s “manliest city,” and deservedly so. Men outnumbered women there 3 to 1, as the town held nearly 90,000 oil workers, miners, and adventurers. Yet, all the manly gallantry of the great north was no match for this year’s epic wildfire there.
Well documented, the disaster played itself out for weeks as the fire raged unabated. And in what resembled more an apocalyptic movie than reality, the world watched the stream of cars attempt to evacuate the town on a single highway, with flames stories high on both sides of the passing vehicles.
It was not until mid-June that residents began to return to what is left of Fort McMurray. By then, the fire had laid waste to the town, regional oil facilities, and more than 1.5 million acres of the Canadian wilderness. The tragic irony is that forest fire is a natural phenomenon – barring human foolishness – and not only natural, but necessary.
Forests such as those in Alberta, Yellowstone, the Rockies, and parts of the Appalachians are fire-dependent ecosystems. The only way that many of the trees in these environments can reproduce is by feeling the burn: Trees like the Lodgepole pine; Jack pines; and other eucalyptus, spruce, and evergreen species.
These trees hold their cones for years, never releasing them until the surrounding air temperature reaches 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s then that these particular trees drop their once resin-covered cones. These fall into the new, mineral rich ash of the forest floor, a floor wiped clean of all underbrush, weeds, or anything else that will keep them from growing into a beautiful, healthy, mighty forest.
Life often works the same way. You sometimes have to experience a fire; a cauldron of disaster; a personal burning to the ground. And there in the heat of the crucible something new can emerge; something possible only after all the deadwood, briars, and brambles have been seared away. There in the ashes, what once was, can foster what will come to be.
This metaphor, of trial by fire, is biblical to its core. Peter said, “You must endure, for your faith is being tested as fire tests and purifies.” Paul instructed, “Fire will reveal what we have built, and will show if a person’s work has any value.” And the prophet Isaiah promised that those whose lives have been scorched by the flames will one day exchange their “ashes for beauty,” and out of their despair they will grow into “great oaks” once again.
In symbolic form, these writers affirm what is taught by all great spiritual traditions and nature itself: When the fire comes, it’s not time to keeping hold on so tightly to what is doomed. It’s time to let go, and let the heat open you up to new life, new growth, and new possibilities. For there, in the ashes of your former life, the remarkable and beautiful will bloom, more alive than ever before.