Letter to Smokey
Dear Smokey Bear, September 21, 2015
Even though I feel like I know you, I’ve only seen you a few times in my life. When I was a child, you showed up at my school to make an impression. You certainly did! It was weird, though, because your message was so scary while your big furry personage shook my hand and seemed friendly and oddly cuddly, like an overgrown teddy bear. When we parted company I remember feeling that somehow I would be personally responsible for a destructive Evil Fire that would burn us all up! “Only You Can Prevent Wildfire” you said over and over. I guess that’s what you wanted me to feel….. so I would be fearful and careful. I was both!
Remember, this was in the sixties, you were still pretty young. And I was just a child. Simplistic messages appealed to me. Your story and message were compelling but did not paint the whole picture. We know better now. Smokey, we have both grown up.
Ever since we started excluding fire entirely about 100 years ago, I imagine the ghosts of your grandparents’ grandparents have been whispering into your ear, warning of troubling times. After all, you and yours have known forever that fire is a natural and necessary force in our forested lands. And not only you, but the people who lived here first knew it so well they used it regularly and for eons (until they were forced to stop) as a superb management tool. Regular fires opened the canopy, creating mosaics of new growth and good food for wildlife and people alike. Regular fires deposited nutrients on the forest floor, feeding and replenishing the whole system.
Smokey, I am not blaming you for this conundrum. I know it’s not your fault. You have been saying important things to kids about being careful with fire, not playing with matches, and things like that…. And after all, you don’t even speak for yourself. You have been given your message by your inventors and handlers. Not only that but you didn’t even exist until someone thought you up. It was after World War II, the war machine needed a new focus and found it in fire suppression. You were a direct result of an ad campaign, bent on putting the fear of fire into every heart and mind. Later you were a real bear cub, rescued during a forest fire, with burnt paws and life in a zoo to look forward to. But that was just a convenient footnote, added to tug the heart strings of people (and children especially) enamored by baby animals.
The years went by and as you listened to your ancestors’ sage whisperings about the tragic exclusion of fire, you must have also been shaking your head in disbelief as more and more of us built our homes squarely in the way, naively wanting to “live in the woods”, without realizing how this would complicate and compound the difficulties in protecting lives and property. Sorry, Smokey, we didn’t realize…!
Now, even your handlers agree that you must present a new message. Perhaps you can say something like “Learn to Live with Fire”, or maybe you could use the “Good Fire/Bad Fire“ wording to help people understand the verities of our situation today. Getting fire back into its natural cycle is going to require not only a lot of work but a whole shift in attitude. You have the chance to be instrumental in spreading the good news; that a wiser wildfire management is coming our way, and that fire is coming back, as long as we make our communities fire resilient and learn to use the excellent tool of prescribed fire in the places where wildfire cannot go. But you know all that. I swear I have recently seen you with a drip torch!
You will have to be very brave from now on, Smokey. The situation is dire due to a century of fuels buildup. You will be biting your nails, worried about how huge and catastrophic the forest fires are these days and worried about the safety of the brave fire fighters sent to deal with increasingly dangerous and increasingly complicated situations. You may even worry about prescribed fire escapes, but I remind you, these are actually very occasional; in 2012, out of 16,626 prescribed fires, there were only 14 that escaped! You can do it though. (Only You can Help Educate People!) I encourage you to speak out and tell the truth about fire!
Recently, you might remember, I met you again after all these years. We participated together in some great “Firewise” events at the local elementary schools. Because our partners at the USFS insisted that an event without you would be lacking, we had invited you to come along. It is true, what they say, that the children adore you. An evaluation at Junction School, for instance, was dominated by kids’ comments about you! So, it looks like you are here to stay…I have to admit, I had been thinking it would be better if you went away entirely…(to enjoy a quiet retirement somewhere?) I was thinking your notoriety and cultural permanence would be impossible to alter. But since you won’t or can’t just leave the scene, I trust that you will work hard to present your NEW MESSAGE, so that people begin to understand that we can’t and shouldn’t keep excluding fire from where it needs to be….. Good Luck, Smokey Bear.
Nancy Bailey is Co-Director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC) Fire and Fuels Program and a long-time resident and steward of the Middle Klamath subbasin.
Forest Steward Cover graphic by Laurie Littman, Norb Szczurek, and Will Harling.
Wildland Urban Interface cartoon by Glen Foden.