They can lay waste to hundreds of square miles of mature trees and displace wildlife. If they spread to areas of human habitation, they can raze buildings to the ground and devastate communities.
And yet, fires can play an important role in nature. Trying to suppress them too drastically can have a negative effect on the ecology of the forest.
It can backfire, so to speak.
Take the giant sequoia, native to inland California. This majestic tree can live for thousands of years and grow to a height of almost 300 feet.
You’d think that protecting groves of sequoias from fire would help preserve them. But sometimes when we interfere with the natural cycle of fire and regrowth, we do a forest no favours.
The suppression of fire during the last century by U.S. land management authorities actually hobbled the sequoia’s ability to survive. Its seedlings can only grow into mature trees if competing plants are regularly eliminated by low-level forest fires. (The sequoia’s spongy bark helps protect it against fire.)
Not only that, the cones of the sequoia require the intense heat of a forest fire in order to open up and release their cargo of seeds. If the surrounding ground has just been cleared of competing vegetation by fire and enriched with the resultant nutritious ash, the seeds are given an additional leg up to grow.
So the sequoia can only grow to its impressive grandeur with the help of fire.
Baked Alaska is one of those desserts that seems like it will end in disaster.
This dessert involves covering a core of ice cream and cake with meringue and baking it at 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit. Really.
Who puts ice cream in a hot oven anyway?
Surely it will result in a melted mess, and you’ll be spending the next hour resentfully scrubbing out your oven.
But Baked Alaska will surprise and amaze you.
When you take this dessert out of the oven after a few minutes, you find that the meringue has cooked and slightly browned, but the ice cream underneath it is still cold and has retained its firm shape. The ice cream inside the “igloo” has remained untouched by the intense heat.
It seems miraculous, because you’d think that ice cream would melt when it came anywhere near temperatures that high. It’s not actually a miracle, however, but rather a clever application of physics. The dessert was invented in the 1800s by American physicist Benjamin Thompson, who was investigating the insulating properties of whipped egg whites.
If you want a genuine example of miraculous protection from a hot oven, you need to go the book of Daniel in the Old Testament.
It’s a truism that it’s easier to destroy than to create.
I saw this in action recently in my own neighbourhood.
A two-storey house had been damaged internally by fire, although it looked salvageable from the outside. Nonetheless, the owners and insurers agreed that it should be demolished and a new house built in its stead.
I imagine the original house had taken months to build. It probably involved scores of people in its construction: contractors, carpenters, bricklayers, roofers, electricians, plumbers, and the like.
But it only took one man with one large backhoe a few hours to raze that building to the ground.
It was shocking how quickly the structure was destroyed. What could have lasted for decades was levelled in the space of a morning.
A cautionary tale, don’t you think?
If we’re not careful, we can see the same thing happen in our own lives.