Smokey bear and wild fires – pushing west into the wilderness
Smokey Bear, like his real-life counterparts, reflected the culture and history of American conquest and entrenchment following the pioneering push to the West Coast in the mid-19th Century.
Manifest Destiny wasn’t just about seizing the Continent; it also perfectly expressed our national view that, having conquered the wilderness, we could do anything to shape our future. In war and peace, our heroes were self-made and stalwart, never giving up or giving in. Our foreign policy reflected our national character; don’t push us around, don’t push our friends around, and bring the boys home.
Wildfire, following the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, became just another massive problem to overcome and tame. The conditions that caused the fire were widespread uncoordinated burning by settlers. The result was predictably unsustainable to people who needed the land for sustenance. The idea of the Forest Reserves, the wooded commons where everyone could benefit from managed forests, began in earnest and, by the turn of the century, Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot became the tip of the spear to further the cause of “conservation” and “wise use” of our natural resources. An unfortunate victim of our national consolidation culturally and ideologically was the notion of “wildness.” It was our intent to wrestle Eden from the vast untamed wilderness.
We dammed the rivers and pushed through railroads to every corner of the country. The Indians were chained, literally and figuratively, and wild places were seized and settled. Fire had no place in the new landscape of rationed and valued resource use. Timber was to be clear cut to sustain people, but not burned. The fire lighters of the past, including Indians who used fire for 77 documented purposes over time, from hunting to war, and the early settlers who could use and did use fire to keep vegetation in check, control pests and recycle nutrients, were now seen as reluctant and uninspired anachronisms. They needed to change with the times. Fire had to go. This development was unfortunate in general, but a disaster in California and the Deep South where conditions were almost unlivable without constant and effective “light burning.” Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, our fathers burned our lawns in the cities and country to bring on deep green grass for the summer in the Age before TruGreen.
Dad’s lighting-the-lawn-on-fire days were numbered when, in 1950, a bear cub was rescued from a wildfire on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. Smokey Bear, already and marketing focus of the Forest Service, became the real live National icon for the now firm view across the nation that a people who conquered Japan and Germany could certainly marshal the people and heavy equipment, the organization and logistics skills, and the will to stop wildfire in its tracks.
While Smokey was the front man for fire prevention, he did not invent the idea that had grown exponentially since the 1910 Idaho Big Blow, and the bear was narrowly confined to a simple message: Remember, Only you can prevent forest fires. Smokey was right, but not in the way we envisioned exactly. It is now apparent that his slogan is true today as it was in 1950. The difference is 180 degrees in terms of meaning and execution. We’re still the only people who can prevent forest fires, but we have to light forest fires to succeed. Light burning millions of acres each year would prevent many massive catastrophic forest fires. Light burning every year across much of the country would moderate a century of fire exclusion. Light burning is a viable and preferable alternative to the massive big boxing and head fire burning we now do as a matter of course all summer long, and at a fraction of the price in blood and treasure.
Smokey Bear, a creature of the times, is still the right voice to lead a new generation of Americans back to the future of managed fire and conservation of precious resources.