Extreme Wildfires Update

Smokey Bear’s world is on fire. But the old mascot won’t die.

Smokey Bear’s world is on fire. But the old mascot won’t die.

Mark Kaufman. Mashable. December 9, 2018

The real Smokey Bear narrowly avoided death in the pine-filled Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, nearly 70 years ago.  Just west of the town of Roswell, firefighters found the bear cub clutching to the upper reaches of a tree, with singed paws and legs. The stranded black bear would almost certainly have perished amid the ashy land, but foresters saved him, and ultimately brought the tiny omnivore to the National Zoo in Washington D.C.  Here, the newly named “Smokey Bear” lived out his domesticated life, well beyond the wild threats of the American West, where forests burn, and indomitable fires are king.

Today, of course, Smokey Bear lives on as the longest-serving public service campaign in U.S. history. He is stern, though approachable. Authoritative, yet gentle. He only says one thing.

“Only you can prevent wildfires.”

But as Smokey the campaign — run by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the non-profit advertiser the Ad Council — approaches his 75th birthday, he has entered changing climes. Earth’s temperature has been rising for over a century — a rise that is indisputably caused by humans. But over the past four decades, this rate of warming has accelerated. Though the nation’s fire woes are a complex confluence of potent culprits, Smokey’s modern world, parched by heat and dryness, is increasingly aflame, and climate change is making it worse.

Wildfires are burning more than twice as much land as they were in the early 1980s (when modern record-keeping began), and these blazes are burning for weeks — not just days — longer. 

Yet Smokey’s message — though imperfect — remains relevant in an increasingly fire-damaged nation.  “You can prevent wildfires — that’s a great message,” Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at the University of Alberta, said in an interview. “I like to think every human-caused fire is preventable.”

Globally, humans are responsible for starting around 95 percent of fires, said Flannigan, whether by downed power lines, a sparking vehicle, or a campfire gone wrong. So, encouraging Americans to be careful in fire country — by drowning campfires in water or not carelessly tossing cigarette butts into the woods — is unquestionably valuable, if not critical.

But limited to five words, Smokey’s famous adage — while memorable and enduring — comes with a catch. “Smokey’s other message is not as obvious,” said Flannigan. “It’s ‘Fire is bad’.”

But, emphasized Flannigan, “Fire is not bad — it’s nature at work.”

“Smokey has a place,” Stephen Pyne, a wildlife historian at Arizona State University, added in an interview. “The problem is when Smokey’s message gets generalized.”

Smokey’s modern message

There are bad fires, and there are good fires. “We want fires of the right sort,” said Pyne.

Wildfires improve the wilderness. They open up areas to sunlight while removing dead brush. They fertilize the land and crack open pine cones, spreading seeds. And, critically, they thin the forests and woodlands, depriving large fires of the fuel they relish when growing into towering conflagrations.  In a modern world besieged by fires, then, we also need fire. In fact, when it’s possible, many fire experts promote intentionally and intelligently lighting fires — to thin out forests that we’ve let become overgrown. This is called prescribed burning.

“Some fires we need to fight, and some we need to light,” said Pyne.

That’s why Pyne suggests a mild alteration of Smokey’s legendary message.

“Why not just have him say ‘Help Smokey stop bad fires?'” wondered Pyne.

Or, perhaps, it’s time to let Smokey retire and hand over the reins to Smokey’s cubs to carry the modern message while leaving Smokey to walk into the sunset, with his furry head and iconic flat-hat held high. “Let him retire with dignity,” said Pyne.

SEE ALSO: The EPA has lost its mind

It’s quite unlikely, however, that Smokey will be retired.  He’s not just a massive advertising success, he’s perhaps one of the most successful in U.S. history — who doesn’t know Smokey Bear?  His message, though oversimplified, remains important not because of his legend, but because of his relevance to the future. Because forests, especially in the Western U.S. and Canada, are growing more susceptible to flames. 

“The climate is changing,” said Flannigan. “We’re getting more extreme weather for fire, and there are more people on the landscape.” This is a recipe for catastrophic flames, which recently proved historically deadly in the California town of Paradise.  Though this blaze might have been caused by flawed power lines, not poor campfire etiquette, the consequences of accidental fire can be identical: towering, unstoppable flames.

Thousands of years ago, before hundreds of millions of people populated North America, lightning strikes likely started nearly every fire on Earth. Lightning, however, is more limited in scope, in part because lightning has a season. “But now with humans, as long as the fuels are dry and the weather is conducive, you can have a fire any time of the year,” said Flannigan.

After all, in the parched West, all it takes is a spark. Under the right conditions, once a fire reaches the crowns of trees, humans are generally powerless to stop the flames, noted Flannigan. Even massive 747 aircraft swooping over fires and dropping loads of crimson retardant has little effect. “Dropping retardant makes a nice picture,” said Flannigan, “But you might as well be spitting on a campfire.”

Smokey’s survival  Smokey has survived through 14 presidential administrations, largely immune to America’s contemporary episodes of social unrest, warring, and economic tumult.

Yet, how successful has Smokey been at stopping, or avoiding, wildfires It’s nearly impossible to say. As the Ad Council pointed out over email, “there are difficulties measuring something that never happens.”  What is understood, however, is that Smokey is well known. Of over 6,700 outdoor recreationists recently surveyed, 8 of 10 could identify Smokey, according to the Ad Council. So his message is likely being heard.  And Smokey has evolved and changed his message, in a nuanced but relevant way. In 2001, his message shifted from “Only you can prevent forest fires” to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

This was appropriate, as some of the America’s largest wildfires don’t occur in forests, but in scrublands and chaparral. Whatever Smokey’s true success rate, the U.S. Forest Service still considers the anthropomorphized bear as one weapon in its battle to stop accidental fires.

“The objective of wildfire prevention strategies, whether engineering, enforcement, education, administration or the Smokey Bear campaign, is to prevent human-caused ignitions from starting,” the federal agency said in a statement. “Smokey’s message is about preventing a wildfire from starting in the first place.” Although seasoned fire experts — like Pyne, who grew up with Smokey — think his message can be refined, it’s hard to argue Smokey isn’t an important part of the modern solution to climate change-enhanced infernos.

After all, we’re going to need all the help we can get. Money alone, to fight fires and treat the land (reducing fuels in heavily wooded forest) won’t solve the problem. And the U.S. Forest Service knows it. In 1995, 16 percent of the agency’s budget was devoted to fighting fire. Now, it’s up to 50 percent. And by 2025, “two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress as part of its appropriated budget will be spent on fire programs,” the agency concluded in a 2015 report.   “We’re seeing expenditures go up and up and up,” said Flannigan. “Despite how much we’re spending, our area burned has more than doubled.”

Solving the nation’s modern wildfire woes doesn’t have a silver bullet solution — regardless of what leading politicians, like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, contend.  Yes, it will mean reducing overgrown vegetation, or fuels, in our historically ill-managed forests. It will mean dramatically lowering global societies’ reliance on carbon-emitting fossil fuels. It will mean fortifying communities against fire.  And it will mean not acting foolishly in fire country. That’s where Smokey, with his unpretentious, chummy demeanor, comes in. “The status quo is not an option for the future,” said Flannigan. “We can’t spend, spend, and spend and continue to get our butts kicked. When you have a battle with a lion you lose.”

“We’re losing.”

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