What a Spark Can Do

for the week of October 9, 2000
by Rubel Shelly

More than 1,000 firefighters were involved in battling a wildfire in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The fire started on August 24 and was not contained until September 8. In the meanwhile, 83,000 acres of valuable timber were burned.

A 46-year-old woman has been arrested on suspicion of starting the fire. Janice Stevenson faces a federal charge of setting timber on fire on U.S. Forest Service property. If convicted on the charge, she faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. She also could be billed for the cost of the blaze which authorities say could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

She must be a career arsonist, wouldn't you think? Anyone who caused that much damage over so vast an area and made it necessary to spend millions of dollars and thousands of man hours must be a member of some militant anti-government conspiracy, right? And don't you suspect she had accomplices?

Before letting our imaginations run wild, let me give you the facts as reported by the Associated Press. Federal investigators who filed charges against Ms. Stevenson say she admits stopping by a road on August 24, lighting a cigarette, and tossing the still-burning match on the ground. "Rather than putting out the fire," an affidavit said, "she looked at it and decided to leave the area."

It sounds all too familiar, doesn't it? Garbled information started circulating in the office about one of the people working there. At the end of a workday, somebody who was tired and stressed out snapped at a spouse or made some insensitive crack to one of the kids. Somebody at church thought the preacher or Sunday School teacher was taking a cheap shot at him.

Rumors, half-truths, grumbling, sarcastic remarks, things said in the heat of anger all these "burning matches" have the potential for burning down acres of office morale, family peace, and church unity that were cultivated over years.

Consider these lines from Holy Scripture: "It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that" (James 3:5-6, The Message). All of us know it is true.

Court documents claim that Ms. Stevenson saw her match ignite the fire, but she chose to drive away when it still could have been put out. If you've tossed any hot sparks lately, maybe it isn't too late to extinguish them with an apology. Failing to do so may leave you liable for a disaster you never intended to happen.

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