Today marks the 74th birthday of America’s wildfire prevention symbol: Smokey Bear. On Aug. 9, 1944, Smokey was officially created to be the face of what would become the longest running public service advertisement campaign in the United States. At the time, our country’s forestlands were facing an epidemic of raging wildfires caused by the carelessness of people. Ironically, these were often the same people who came to those natural areas to admire the wild beauty of the landscape, and the wildlife that lived there. The first Smokey Bear poster was released In October of 1944, and it featured a warm and friendly looking black bear urging people that “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!”
The first Smokey Bear poster was followed by many more advertisements that focused on various causes of forest fires, especially unattended campfires, discarded matches, and littered cigarettes. Many of these ads placed in State and National Parks across the country offered ways to prevent fires through the proper disposal of burning objects, and the complete extinguishing of campfires. Other ads employed the approach of graciously thanking outdoor enthusiasts for taking the time to help prevent needless forest loss. All of these ads were incredibly effective, especially because they targeted people’s emotions; filling them with a sense of guilt for being careless for so long, as well as a swelling sense of responsibility to be protectors of the forest like Smokey. Paintings of Smokey standing alongside devastated forest animals made homeless by wildfire, and posters that involved Smokey appealing directly to the viewer reminding them that “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” were hard for people to ignore, and often struck a chord with them on a personal level.
Smokey Bear was good at his job, almost too good. For years after his debut, people did everything they could to prevent forest fires, whether wild or controlled. Fire was cast as a dire enemy to nature, wildlife, and all humans that enjoy the outdoors. What we did not know going into the era of Smokey Bear is that not all fire in the forest landscape is bad. Many decades of complete fire suppression went by in many areas, and with years’ worth of dead wood, limbs, and brush clogging forest understories, wildfires only became more and more intense whenever they finally did happen.
Historically, small, natural forest fires kept highly flammable woody debris from piling up to dangerous levels, made it easier for wildlife and people to move through the forest, and encouraged the growth of plants that animals eat. Without these regular, low intensity fires, some forest ecosystems and tree species such as longleaf pine struggled to remain healthy at all. That is why there is now a movement by forest managers to lower the risk of more extreme wildfire by regularly implementing small, controlled forest fires.
That is also why Smokey Bear’s iconic message has recently been adapted to read “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” so that uncontrolled, often destructive fires can be distinguished from ones overseen by certified personnel for hazard reduction. While Smokey Bear is now helping to prevent wildfires by promoting forest management, it will take time to reduce wildfire risk across the entire country, especially in highly populated areas where doing controlled burns is difficult.
Thankfully for us in Sampson County, our humid climate, and history of forest management help us to avoid fires of the intensity commonly seen in Western States. That doesn’t mean that Smokey’s message to be responsible when it comes to fire doesn’t apply to us though; the North Carolina Forest Service fought approximately 60 wildfires in Sampson County during this Spring fire season alone!
These fires ranged in size from about half an acre to over 200 acres in size, and most of them started in people’s own backyards. It’s important to keep a watch on fires at all times when burning backyard debris, or when clearing land, even when using a burn barrel. Always try to avoid windy conditions, and low humidity when burning, and never burn trash.
Smokey will no doubt remain an important icon for many years to come, and continue to rally us towards taking good care of our forests; whether that be through putting our campfires out completely to avoid starting a wildfire, or by keeping forest debris levels low to help prevent wildfires from starting or escalating. With your help keeping backyard fires contained, and the efforts of NC Forest Service staff to keep Sampson County forests healthy and well managed, maybe we can all make Smokey’s birthday wish of preventing wildfires come true!