“There is in every woman’s heart a spark of heavenly fire which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.” Washington Irving
There are few forces in nature that have a greater capacity to destroy than fire. And that destructive power is indiscriminate. One need only review the historical landscape of the most notorious fires in history to prove the point. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, for example, generally considered the most “famous fire” of the past 100 years, killed 300 people and destroyed more than 17,000 structures over 2000 acres in 27 hours. Incredibly, later that same year, a fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, thought to be the worst wild fire in U.S. history, claimed over 1,500 lives and destroyed nearly 3.8 million acres. The Great London Fire, which is believed to have started in a baker’s shop in 1666, destroyed more 13,000 structures and claimed an unrecorded, but presumably, staggeringly high number of lives. The San Francisco Earthquake Fire of 1906 began simply – from stoves and lamps that were overturned from the earthquake – but, in the span of three days, killed more than 3,000 people and destroyed close to 300,000 structures. Indeed, in just the last 24 months, fires have ravaged (or claimed) the lives of hundreds of individuals and scarred the landscape of the tens of millions of acres of land in the United States alone. In fact, the U.S. Forestry Service estimates that fires destroyed more than 8.8 million acres of land in 2012 alone and it is highly likely given the extraordinary number of fires that have burned this year, including the Rim Firm near Yosemite National Park, which alone destroyed more than 260,000 acres (i.e., nearly 402 square miles!), that 2013 will surpass that number.
Thus, it’s easy to lose sight of the many positive attributes of fire – the fact that, when applied to ferrous alloys, such as steel or cast iron, as part of the tempering process, fire toughens the metals, while simultaneously increasing their ductility (i.e., the metal becomes less brittle and more elastic and malleable) or that exposing glass to same tempering process not only strengthens the glass, but, when broken, causes it to crumble into small granular chunks instead of splintering into jagged shards (a feature that greatly reduces the likelihood of injury in certain applications). When properly controlled, fire also can be used in forest management and prairie restoration by clearing out dense underbrush to facilitate the growth of new vegetation and reduce the risk of more dangerous wildfires and, paradoxically, through a practice known as “back burning,” can actually stop the spread of wildfires that already are in progress.
Fire also is essential to various creative processes. It allows: artisans to “blow” and fashion beautiful glass products; artists to create and glaze ceramic products; metal smiths to refine and remove impurities from precious metals; and chefs to work their magic in creating the foods used to nourish our bodies. And then, there are the somewhat less tangible, but no less transformative qualities of fire – its ability, though a single tongue dancing on a candle wick, to illuminate and allow one to navigate otherwise impenetrable (and often frightening) darkness; its unique capacity, when applied to a beach bonfire or simple campfire, to serve as a gathering point and foster a sense of community; its indispensability to the production of energy; and, lastly, but no less importantly, its ability, even in the simplicity of a fireplace, to provide warmth and comfort on the most bitter and coldest winter day.
On March 26, 2012, my friend and fellow author, Kristen Moeller (and her husband, David) lost virtually everything material they owned, including their dream home, in the now infamous Lower North Fork Fire – a fire that claimed the lives of several of their neighbors and destroyed 22 homes and 4,140 acres of beautiful mountain vistas. To say that the events of that day gutted Kristen on many levels would be a considerable understatement, as even a cursory reading of her heart-wrenching writings in the days, weeks and months that followed make clear (http://kristenmoeller.com/walking-through-fire). However, focusing on what that the fire stole from Kristen would only tell a very small part of the story and would do a significant injustice to this remarkable woman, who, in its aftermath, found the willingness, courage and strength to use the still smoldering embers it left behind to not only re-kindle the fire in her own heart, but, with her usual selflessness, in the hearts of countless others.
If you read her books, “Waiting for Jack” (http://tinyurl.com/nn7oo7o)(2010) and “What Are You Waiting For?” (2013) (http://tinyurl.com/pcvdoj8), you will quickly (and rather intimately) discover that the events of March 26, 2012 were not the first “firestorm” Kristen had endured in her life (battles with bulimia and substance abuse are two others that immediately come to mind) – and so, I suppose, the fact that she came out on the other side of this transitional life experience in one piece is a reflection of the age old adage that “practice makes perfect”! But, in my mind, there is something different this time around. My sense is that Kristen has found a way to harness the destructive power of that fire and, not unlike the blacksmith, use it re-shape herself and grow stronger. In the midst of her suffering, Kristen patiently allowed the fire to “burn off” the underbrush that had begun to obscure her vision of her purpose and to refine her mission. And now that the smoke thankfully has cleared, she is sharing the warmth and clarity of that re-kindled fire with others so that they too can find a way to navigate the fires (large and small) that rage in their own lives (http://tinyurl.com/pyv4ke5).