The Grackle

Observations, Reflections and Miscellany from the Wacoan

From Smokey to Safety

A Forester’s Guide to Wildfire Prevention

9 months ago

By Skylla Mumana

With steady, high temperatures that show no signs of dropping, millions of people across the globe are feeling the heat this summer — and no one knows heat like Smokey Bear. The U.S. Forest Service’s official slogan, “Only you can prevent wildfires,” is the longest-running public service campaign in the United States.

The iconic bear is based on a real black bear that survived a forest fire in 1950, leading to the advancement of national fire safety measures across the country. But Smokey’s official birthday is August 9, 1944, when the Forest Service authorized his creation as a mascot. In honor of Smokey’s turning 79 this year, it’s important to consider how we can prevent wildfires and protect friends, loved ones and the environment.

Retired forester Robert Beanblossom and his national wildfire prevention and education team have plenty of tips and information on how to do that. Beanblossom spent 42 years with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Forestry is a profession that manages the nation’s forest lands for the purpose of public sustainably. Foresters manage public areas, preserve and maintain forests, strengthen ecosystems and manage fires. Foresters work in tandem with law enforcement, firefighters and numerous environmental agencies to help prevent what Beanblossom calls “starts,” or fire ignitions. He believes that raising awareness is key to wildfire prevention.

“Ninety percent of all wildfires in Texas are caused by humans,” Beanblossom said. “So we’re doing a lot of community outreach and education and just trying to raise awareness of the extremely dry conditions that could lead to a wildfire. Any spark could cause a fire right now.”

The U.S. Forest Service’s National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) helps foresters and other fire managers estimate the fire danger in an area. The system is broken into different levels based on different factors. Waco and McLennan County are currently at Very High risk, which is a 4.

“Obviously we receive very detailed fire weather information, but for the general public we categorize levels of fire danger on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being extreme in danger,” he said. “Whenever you talk about very high or extreme fire danger, you’re talking about high temperatures, low humidity, and some wind.”

Throughout the southeastern United States and in Texas specifically, the Texas A&M Forest Service notes that there are three leading causes of wildfires. The first is debris burning. Most human-caused wildfires are the result of careless burning of items such as broken bits of wood, litter, rubble and trash.

“Most counties now have a ban on any open burning, so we’re trying to get the word out to obey these burn bans,” Beanblossom said. “Right now is not the time to burn.”

The second leading cause is equipment use. Sparks from welding and grinding equipment or malfunctioning equipment can easily lead to a fire. Leaving hot equipment on dry grass or exposing or a vehicle’s exhaust system to flammable material can also lead to a wildfire.

“Equipment use is kind of a broad term and can encompass a lot of activities — from tire blowouts to poorly maintained exhaust systems to parking on dead grass,” Beanblossom said.

The third leading cause of wildfires in Texas is arson.

Both Beanblossom and Smokey Bear agree that small, preventative measures can go a long way toward preventing wildfires. For example, when camping, allow any firewood to burn completely to ash, then douse all embers with water until any hissing sounds stop. Also, try to avoid parking in tall dry grass. Finally, ensure any safety chains on trailers or cars are secure so they don’t fall and come in contact with the road when driving and spark a fire.

While staying cool and hydrated is key to surviving the summer, it’s also important to consider how the heat can affect the environment and to do your part to prevent wildfires. It’s easier to cause one than most people think.

“People typically can underestimate weather conditions and dryness, and I think that’s the main thing,” Beanblossom said. “People are just not aware of how quickly a wildfire can spread.”

For more information on how to protect Texas and prevent wildfires, please visit Smokey Bear’s website.

Smokey Bear Facts:

  • It’s “Smokey Bear,” not “Smokey the Bear”
  • While the cartoon Smokey Bear was created in 1944, the real-life Smokey was a black bear cub that was found alive, but badly burned from a forest fire. After recovering from his injuries he spent his days at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, where he was an ambassador for wildfire prevention for 26 years.
  • Smokey Bear in the ad campaign is a brown bear.
  • Smokey has an Instagram account, with over 78,000 followers.
  • Smokey has his own anthem, created in 1952 by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins. Alas, it was titled “Smokey the Bear,” which led to the decades-long confusion about the bear’s name.