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What Wildfires Can Teach Us About How To Fight Cultural Contagions


So far this year 47,463 wildfires have burned 6,838,826 acres, according to a report released from the National Interagency Coordination Center on August 31. Although that’s 8 percent fewer fires than average, it’s about 20 percent more acres burned.

Interesting statistics though they be, they don’t tell the human cost. We get a better sense of that when we bring it closer to home. The Britania Mountain fire near Wheatland, Wyoming, is just one of these 47,000 fires, and a rather modest one at that. Still, it has consumed more than 26,000 acres, 18 structures, and cost $2.6 million. As I write, it still threatens further homes, sage grouse habitats, and energy infrastructure.

Don’t forget the smoke. While the loss of property can be localized, the smoke blows where it will. It makes eyes water and throats burn far away from the fire itself. It obscures the beautiful vistas of Wyoming and is the visible residue of a massive injection of CO2 into the atmosphere. A 2007 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research estimated that one wildfire season alone produces 4 to 6 percent of America’s entire carbon footprint.

Everybody has a stake in reducing wildfires, from the CEO of an oil conglomerate to the soccer mom at the pump, hunters and bird-watchers, the elderly and parents of small children, those concerned with global warming and those not. No matter how distant the fires are from us personally, they affect us all.

They waste public resources, threaten wildlife, ruin beautiful vistas, and destroy the homes of people we care about and the infrastructure that we have all paid for with hard-earned money. They create an atmosphere that no one wants to breathe but that we all must.

As we consider the cost of wildfires on our public lands, we should notice the parallels to the wildfires in our culture. These, too, may be raging in places that seem far distant from your own home and family.

They are played out in city council meetings and school board meetings that most people never bother to attend. They are played out in court cases and legislative committee hearings. They are played out in letters to the editor, obscure academic journals, and op-eds across the country.

They are played out in kindergarten classrooms, high school assemblies, and university lecture halls, during speeches that we will never hear unless we take the time to ask our children what they are learning. In all of these places, and a thousand more, constant fires threaten to burn down institutions of our shared culture. Institutions like marriage, family, church, and a free press are all threatened by the flames. Some have already been scorched to some degree.

There are fires raging in our educational institutions, in every governmental institution from our cities on up to the federal government. Some were set by cultural arsonists. Others are the accidental result of cultural carelessness. After they have been burning for a while, it doesn’t really matter who started the fire, it only matters whether you are fighting or fanning the flames.

Like fires in the wilderness, we often don’t notice them until they have been burning for a while. Like wildfires, there are so many that we can hardly keep track. Like wildfires, no one is their master, not even those who started them. Fires and cultural ideas have a life of their own. Once let loose, they burn whatever is in their path.

Sometimes they burn the homes of those who just happen to be nearby. Other times they turn and burn the people who set the fire. Most often, they burn the people who rush in and try to fight the flames.

As with firefighters, we like to send specially trained people in to fight the fires. Some of these are paid legislators. Others are elected to volunteer positions. After electing them, we send them into the places where the cultural fires are burning and ask them to extinguish the flames for us. That’s a good start. But there are three things we must never forget.

First, not everyone wants to extinguish the flames. Cultural arsonists run for public office just as surely as cultural firefighters do. We must know how to tell the difference.

Second, not everyone who wants to extinguish the flames knows how. Just as some cultural fires are started accidentally, so also elected officials who do not understand the nature of fire may accidentally make matters worse. Well-meaning people also need to study and train to be effective firefighters.

Third, once we send people in to fight the fires, they still need our support. It would be unconscionable to drop smoke jumpers into a wilderness area and pay no attention to them afterwards. Conditions on the ground are always changing, and we must communicate to find out what they need from us to do their job and stay alive.

In the same way, we should be in constant contact with anybody we elect to fight the cultural fires. Without our constant support and resupply, they cannot do the job. Just because you are not on the front lines does not mean you don’t have a stake in fighting the fires.

Cultural fires scorch the land and destroy the beauty of the land. They turn once- wholesome places into toxic wastelands. Just think about how the torching of public obscenity laws has led to an Internet that places every son or daughter within a single click of soul-corrupting images. It has isolated parents from neighborly support in protecting their kids from the noxious fumes of our culture.

Even if you are able to keep your children away from the noxious wastelands created by our cultural fires, they are still breathing the same air.

We also see households burned by the raging fires. Look at the children from broken homes, and you will usually find that our cultural degeneration contributed to the tragedy. The cultural fires make it more difficult for well-meaning parents to hold their own families together.

We can and should do something about this. Governments, churches, and educational institutions have a direct stake in making every decision in a way that supports the home and family. At the heart of our cultural wars is a false notion that individual freedom trumps the integrity of the family.

The opposite is true. The family is the basic building block of society. Every time there is a choice between strengthening the bonds of the family and absolute individual autonomy, the family should come first.

Finally, don’t forget about the smoke, even if your own family is not burning down. Even if you are able to keep yourself and your children away from the noxious wastelands that have been created by our cultural fires, never forget that you are still breathing the same air.

It seeps into your home unbidden. It gets into your lungs and the lungs of your children. Worse, you soon get used to it and stop noticing that you are breathing noxious fumes. The only way to clean the air that we all breathe, and build a healthy environment for your family, is to lend a hand in putting out the fires.