In mid-July 1974, a bolt of lightning struck a tree in a remote area of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, igniting a blaze that burned for three months and marked a major shift in federal wildfire policy.
Rather than racing to stamp out the flames, park officials decided to monitor the fire. Decades of suppressing fires, natural and human-caused alike, had left America’s forests overgrown and prone to extreme conflagrations. Emerging research showed that allowing nature to run its course would benefit forest health.
The National Park Service had revised its wildfire management policy a few years earlier, and the Forest Service followed suit that year. The Waterfall Canyon Fire in Grand Teton was one of the first large fires officials let run its course inside a national park, and it torched some 3,700 acres before rain and snow finally extinguished it that fall.
An October New York Times article, “Rangers Refute Smokey Bear and Let Forest Fire Spread,” captured locals’ frustrations with the controversial new policy, as the sight of smoke-filled skies and smoldering old-growth trees prompted accusations that the park was taking a “scorched earth” approach to fire management. Hundreds signed a petition urging the federal agency to conduct its “experiments” in more isolated areas.
Officials said critics threatened to derail a science-based policy. “We’ve had nearly 200 years in this country of saying fire is bad,” Tony Bevinetto, the park’s information officer, reportedly told visitors at the time. “It’s neither bad nor good — it’s natural.”
Nearly half a century later, wildfire experts are fighting the same fight. And the person perhaps most responsible for Americans’ reflexive anti-fire sentiment isn’t a person at all, but a cartoon bear: Smokey, the Forest Service’s lovable icon of fire prevention.
Since its creation in 1944, the Smokey Bear campaign has been laser-focused on reducing the number of human-caused fires. “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” the trusty bear reminds us in his signature voice. While that charge continues to be an important one — people should be careful with matches, cigarettes and campfires — Smokey has never talked about wildfire with the nuance it deserves.
“This campaign really led the public to believe that fire overall didn’t have a role in Western forests,” Michele Crist, a landscape ecologist at the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that oversees one-third of all federal land, told reporters at a wildfire workshop in Missoula, Montana, earlier this year.
Natural fire plays a critical role in many forest ecosystems, clearing the forest floor of dead vegetation and other fuels, recycling nutrients back into the soil and controlling invasive species. Moose, deer and other species rely on the open, grassy areas fire leaves behind for food. Some tree species, including several conifers, depend on periodic fire to disperse seeds and regenerate.
The aggressive fire exclusion Smokey championed proved detrimental to long-term ecosystem health, leaving forests choked with a dangerous amount of vegetation that can fuel catastrophic fires ― a phenomenon that scientists have dubbed “the Smokey Bear effect.” Climate change is only making these infernos worse, with year after year of bigger, more erratic and highly destructive wildfires.
In other words, Smokey ― the most important figure in fire prevention and the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history ― may be a net negative for the environment.
As he celebrates his 75th birthday this year, some fire experts are calling for the old bear to catch up with the changing times and to start talking about the positive effects of wildfire.
“Smokey has got to get on board and be a part of the solution, bringing people into that education,” said John Bailey, a fire ecologist and professor at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. Wildland fire is complex and can’t be reduced to a bumper sticker, he said.
Success Breeds Failure
Long before Smokey came along, the federal government treated fire as a destructive force that must be stopped. Its aggressive suppression policy is rooted in a belief that fire threatened commercial timber. In 1910, a series of wind-driven fires known as the “Big Blowup” burned some 3 million forested acres in Montana, Idaho and Washington.
The Forest Service’s response to the record-breaking event was to essentially army up: prevent fires from starting and stamp out flames as quickly as possible when they do. By 1935, it had adopted the so-called “10 a.m.” rule, tasking firefighters with suppressing all fires by the morning after they’d been spotted.
In February 1942, during World War II, Japanese submarines attacked an oil terminal north of Santa Barbara, California, near Los Padres National Forest. The damage was minimal but the event sparked widespread fears of an invasion on the West Coast that, among other things, could ignite raging wildfires in America’s forested areas. In an effort to better protect these timber resources, which were key to the war effort, the Forest Service created the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention program.
One of the program’s earliest posters featured scary caricatures of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo next to a burning forest, with the words “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.” That was also the year of Walt Disney’s animated film Bambi, with its famous scene of forest critters fleeing an explosive wildfire careless hunters had started. In 1943, the Forest Service put Bambi characters on one of its posters, though Disney only agreed to loan them the likeness for one year.
In need of a new face of fire prevention, the agency hired illustrator Albert Staehle, and in 1944, Smokey Bear was born. The very first Smokey poster showed a chubby bear wearing his signature park ranger hat and pouring water over a campfire: “Smokey says ― Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” Later messages from the nonprofit Advertising Council, which still administers the campaign, equated fire to total ecological and economic collapse:
“Put the life out of your campfires, before the campfires put the life out of the forest.”
“It only takes a minute to wipe out a century. A flash, then nothing. And even the birds won’t come anymore.”
“Please be careful with fire, because a country without its forests is a country without its future.”
Others compared wildfires to hydrogen bombs and painted them as an evil “enemy” that must be conquered. Imagery and language used over the years have led some scholars to say the campaign has been a symbol of racism and colonialism, as The Conversation reported in July.
The Smokey-led campaign was hugely effective in terms of helping reduce the number of acres burned, at least during its early decades. The acreage declined nationwide from about 30 million annually in the early 1940s to less than 4 million in the late 1970s.
Howie Cohen, a California resident and retired advertising executive most famous for the iconic 1970s Alka-Seltzer campaigns, grew up hearing Smokey Bear’s warnings and can still recite the famous 1950s song from memory. Smokey’s focused message and anthropomorphic qualities made him a successful, beloved figure, Cohen said.
“He feels like a friend,” Cohen said. “He’s smart and trustworthy and it kind of felt like he can keep us safe.”
But Smokey’s enduring legacy is, well, complicated. In a 2013 paper titled “Be careful what you wish for,” two Forest Service researchers wrote that Smokey’s success in preventing fire “has come at considerable cost,” including a “decline in forest health, an increase in fuel loads in some forests, and wildfires that are more difficult and expensive to control.”
And yet aggressive fire suppression remained “the order of the day.”
Human-caused global warming is only making the wildfire problem worse, as scientists find it already contributes to the extreme fires raging across the West. A 2016 study concluded that anthropogenic climate change had significantly dried out vegetation and doubled the amount of land that burned in Western forests between 1984 and 2014.
While the number of fires year-to-year in the United States has remained relatively steady since the mid-1980s, their size and the total annual acreage burned have drastically increased, as FiveThirtyEight reported last year using data from the National Interagency Fire Center. The cost of fighting fires has also surged. During the 2017 fire season, the Forest Service spent more than $2.4 billion ― more than half its annual budget ― on fire operations. In 1995, wildfires costs accounted for 16 percent of the agency’s budget.
Wildfires are forecast to become increasingly severe as climate change continues to drive up temperatures and fuel drought.
Meanwhile, the field of fire ecology has come a long way since the 1940s. As experts came to understand the natural role of fire, federal agencies adopted policies to allow for more natural fires to burn. In 1978, the Forest Service finally scrapped its “10 a.m. rule” and started encouraging the use of prescribed burning, fires that are intentionally set and controlled.
Yet Smokey Bear’s message has remained largely the same. The only change to his signature catchphrase came in 2001, when it was updated from “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” to “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” to account for the fact that fire is not limited to forests. But while about 85 percent of wildland fires in the United States are human-caused, some of the worst fires in recent years, including last year’s Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California’s history, were started not by careless individuals but by California’s investor-owned utility.
Today, Smokey has his own Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as a comprehensive website featuring a “Benefits of Fire” section that describes fire as “one of the most important natural agents of change” and vital to maintaining certain ecosystems. It also has information about how prescribed burning can mimic natural fires, reducing hazardous fuel loads and the risk of catastrophic blazes.
But Smokey rarely, if ever, mentions these benefits. What’s holding him back? Well, federal law places a muzzle on the fictional bear, preventing him from giving a more nuanced message. He’s only allowed to utter his five-word slogan: “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” But the campaign has “found creative ways to expand upon that line and educate millions about the importance of wildfire prevention,” said Gwen Beavans, a Smokey spokeswoman and the Forest Service’s national fire-prevention program manager.
Since the Trump administration took office, Smokey hasn’t once posted to Twitter about the effects of climate change on fires.
Jen Hensiek, a district ranger with the Forest Service in Missoula, Montana, told HuffPost that there is room for improvement but it is vital that Smokey, a cornerstone of the agency’s public image, continue pushing his prevention message. Unfortunately, she said, many of today’s fires are the large, extreme events that people have come to fear. And Smokey is key for reducing the likelihood of these high-intensity infernos. The challenge for federal officials moving forward is to find a way to reverse the current trend.
“It doesn’t have to be big and bad and scary every time. We have the ability to think about this in a different way, and we have the tools, we have the scientific literature to support that,” she said. “We know what we need to do.”
Hensiek said achieving that goal starts with building public acceptance for allowing for more natural and prescribed fires, convincing people that a little smoke now can prevent a lot of smoke later. At public events, it is Smokey that often draws people in and allows for her to discuss the importance of increasing forest resilience and building fire-adapted communities.
“Smokey doesn’t talk; the ranger talks,” she said. “When I am Smokey’s ranger on the ground, or whoever is, I think that’s an important part of our message that we need to carry.”
Time For A Face-Lift?
Sarah Berns of Winthrop, Washington, has worked on both sides of wildland firefighting, first as a Forest Service smokejumper and later in fire prevention. In August she published a piece in Outside magazine arguing that Smokey “desperately needs a makeover.”
Instead of continuing to “point an index finger and scold the public,” she wrote, Smokey should become a modern fire ecologist and lead a public dialogue to garner support for using prescribed fire as a tool to improve forest health.
Berns told HuffPost it would be foolish to do away with such a recognizable figure, but that a myopic slogan from the 1940s is no longer enough.
“I think that young people especially don’t think of him as anything more than an old, outdated image,” she said.
Berns says Smokey’s transformation should be drastic. In her Outside piece, she calls for swapping Smokey’s “dad jeans for green firefighting pants and a yellow shirt,” giving him a new voice that appeals to a younger, more diverse audience, and putting him to work on prescribed burns. “Smokey, pick up a drip torch and lead by example,” she wrote.
Bailey, the fire expert at Oregon State University, would also like to see Smokey expand his message.
“I don’t think we do away with it,” he said. “I think we just kind of get it back on course.”
Smokey could explain the difference between natural and unnatural blazes, between low-intensity fires that clear undergrowth and regenerate forests and the high-intensity infernos that kill old-growth trees and sweep through entire neighborhoods, Bailey said. He could teach people that fire not only destroys things but also creates new life, and how indigenous people have used it for millennia to manipulate, diversify and improve the landscape. And he could talk about the urgent need to better manage America’s wildlands to make them more resilient in our rapidly warming world.
As with so many other issues, people have whittled down wildfires to an easily digestible talking point, Bailey said. But the reality with wildland fire is it’s incredibly complicated and people can and must learn to live with it.
“Even if we decide we can’t live with fire and we’re going to continue this approach of trying to suppress every fire and fire is bad, we’re going to burn up anyway,” he said. “There is no future without fire and smoke. You can deny this all you want or you can start working towards a solution of how we’re going to coexist with this reality.”
Cohen would ultimately like to see Smokey educating children about the effects of climate change on forests and wildlife, but said it’s important that the Ad Council and Forest Service remain true to Smokey’s brand. The worst thing the campaign could do, he said, is compromise or politicize the beloved icon.
The Ad Council did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment and the Forest Service did not respond to questions about what it would take to give Smokey a longer leash. But the campaign acknowledges that Smokey hasn’t been vocal enough. TV commercials the campaign released earlier this year as part of the 75th birthday celebration feature a new Smokey emoji with voice-overs by celebrities including Stephen Colbert and Jeff Foxworthy.
“If you’ve ever found yourself repeating the same thing for 75 years, you might be Smokey Bear,” Foxworthy says. “Well, the thing is, there’s a lot more to say.” The ads go on to warn about the risks of burning yard debris, dumping hot barbecue coals and parking running vehicles on dry grass ― none of which stray far from his earlier words of caution.
Beavans said in an emailed statement that the agency is “always open to more ideas to help increase awareness” about fire prevention.
“Recognizing the role of naturally-ignited wildfire on the landscape and the positive role it can play in forest health is a changing paradigm in land management,” Beavans said. “However, nearly 9 out of 10 wildfires nationwide today are still caused by humans due to reasons such as parking on tall, dry grass or not fully extinguishing campfires.”
Berns is disappointed that the Smokey campaign didn’t do more as part of the anniversary to move beyond simply demanding personal responsibility.
“This was their teachable moment,” Berns said. “I feel like they missed an opportunity.”
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Reporting for this article was made possible in part by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.
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