When a fire burns in a forest should we put it out? What was it that Smokey the Bear said? “Only you can prevent forest fires”? Unfortunately Smokey the Bear might not have been looking out for our best interests after all. He can hardly be blamed. He is only a bear after all.
It started in the 1950s. We were fighting in the Korean War and seemed to be deathly afraid of two things: communism and forest fires. The ‘50s saw the Forest Service putting out fires like they were waging a war. Any flame left burning threatened to consume us all.
What happened next illustrates the incredible power of a good symbol. What might seem to be a lost cause often surges to life if you can give people something to rally around.
The campaign against forest fires was portrayed in the form of a baby bear emerging from thick plumes of smoke, fur burnt from its body, mother already consumed by the raging flames from which it fled.
Orphaned and permanently scarred, the cub would live to be named Smokey and for the rest of his life Smokey the Bear would be held up as an example of the horrors that untamed forest fires could inflict.
According to Phillip Connors, author of “Fire Season,” it would be a couple more decades before we realized that “instead of putting out fires, we had merely been putting them off.”
What we hadn’t realized at the time was that fire plays a vital role in certain ecosystems. In some parts of the world fire occurs as naturally as rain, usually beginning with a strike of lightning to the right tree top.
The fire may burn out with little more than a whisper or spread and consume miles of forest. One would probably assume that this is harmful; the forest is blackened, the wildlife sent screeching from their homes.
But looking a little closer, we realize that fire is just what the doctor ordered. Without our interference the fire would burn long and with low intensity, clearing away the undergrowth to create a better habitat and strong trees. Like most things in nature, fire is a part of the necessary cycle of life and death.
By acting with a policy of “total suppression” we not only hurt fire-dependent ecosystems but we set ourselves up for future failures. We let the undergrowth build and build so that each time a new fire starts, it burns with greater and greater intensely. What was once healthy for the environment is now destroying it and we are having a harder and harder time putting it out.
There is good news. Today our techniques are evolving. In the decades following the “Smokey the Bear” campaign, we began to realize our mistake as forest fires became noticeably harder to manage.
Slowly our policies shifted as we began to monitor forest fires and control them when necessary. This proved to be as expensive and dangerous as extinguishing them. Sometimes more so.
In 1988 the public watched their television screens in horror as helicopters relayed footage from Yellowstone National Park of “prescribed natural fires” that according to the book “Fire Season” burned more than one million acres and cost 14 times their annual operating budget to contain.
The fires were unavoidable and beneficial for the environment but most American’s didn’t know or believe that.
“Prescribed natural fire” would be a tough sell for the people. After 100 years on this continent, our understanding of nature is finally catching up to the early Native American tribes who fostered healthier ecosystems through their controlled use of fire.
The biggest challenge in the modern age is the usual one: the good of nature versus the interests of the people. We started putting fires out for a reason.
Left untamed they threaten homes and crops. Fire has little room to burn in the modern age. Many forests which were once fire dependent have been permanently altered by human occupation and fire suppression.
Fighting forest fires should be about protecting the lives and homes of people first. But if we can determine that the fire is naturally occurring (not from a cigarette carelessly flicked from a car window) and there is room to let it burn, we should do so. It won’t look pretty, but by doing this we can create healthier ecosystems and more controllable fires in the future.
It is evident by today’s practices that we are learning this lesson. But that lesson doesn’t have to end with forest fires. It should be applied to every policy our government implements.
We were told that fires were bad and that they needed to be put out wherever they occurred. We of course agreed, because we had seen the destruction that fire could cause, the loss of homes and loss of lives.
But if research had been done to question that policy we might have realized before it was too late that naturally occurring fires are no more evil than a fierce thunderstorm and just as we would never pour thousands of dollars into fighting thunderstorms, we should never have poured thousands into fighting forest fires.
We learn about history so that we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Next time we are told that something needs to be extinguished, let’s make sure that it’s true.
Zach Pearson can be contacted at