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Reflections of Nature by Bob Jones Program Assistant LaGrange County SWCD

A cherished fall tradition, “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires,” and its mascot, Smokey Bear, are celebrating 72 years. Yes, Smokey Bear is 72 years old. It was in 1944 that an advertising campaign was created by the U.S. Forest Service to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires. The original slogan was “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” The U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council administer the fictional character Smokey Bear. Art Critic Harold Rosenberg was the creator of Smokey. In fact, Smokey Bear’s name and image is protected by U.S. federal law, the Smokey Bear Act of 1952. The slogan was revised in 1947 to “Remember…Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In April 2001, the message was again updated to “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires”. The Ad Council says 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of children in the U.S. recognize Smokey Bear and his message.

The creation of this ad campaign was influenced by World War II. The U.S. Forest Service had fought wildfires for many years before World War II, but with most able-bodied men serving in the armed forces, the hope was to educate local communities about the danger of forest fires and prevent them from starting in the first place.

From November 1944 to April 1945, the Japanese Empire launched some 9,000 fire balloons into the jet stream in an attempt to start wildfires in Oregon. An estimated 10 percent of these (some 900) reached the U.S. Five school children and their teacher in Bly, Ore., were killed by one of these balloons on May 5, 1945. The group had found one of these balloons and it detonated while they were examining it. A memorial was erected at what today is called the Mitchell Recreation Area.

In the spring of 1950, a wildfire burned in the Lincoln National Forest in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Firefighters were assisted by a group of soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas. In the process of fighting the fire, an American black bear cub was found clinging to a tree. He had climbed the tree to escape the blaze. His paws and hind legs had been burned. The soldiers rescued the cub and with the help of a game warden, they brought the cub back to camp and treated his burns. The national news services picked up on this story and the bear cub was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. He was named Smokey and became the living mascot. Millions of visitors came to see Smokey and there were so many letters sent to Smokey that the U.S Post Office gave him his own unique zip code.

Over the past 72 years, Smokey Bear has been the conscious of all Americans when it comes to wildfires. Recent years of drought in many parts of the U.S. has made this message extremely important. We all need to realize that left in their natural state, forests need to have periodic low-intensity fires for vitality, rejuvenation, and regeneration. Examples are chaparral and closed-cone pine forest habitats, which need fire for seeds and cones to sprout. Wildfires also play a role in the preservation of pine barrens, which are well adapted to small ground fires and rely on periodic fires to remove competing species. When a brushland, woodland, or forested area is not impacted by fire for a long period of time, large quantities of flammable leaves, branches and other organic matter tend to accumulate on the forest floor. When a wildfire does occur, the increased amount of fuel present creates a crown fire, which destroys all vegetation and affects surface soil chemistry. This type of fire makes it very difficult for a forest to recover. The purpose of the Smokey Bear campaign is to prevent “bad” (intentional or accidental) wildfires.

The LaGrange County Soil and Water Conservation District is currently hosting Smokey Bear at Par-Gil Natural Resources Learning Center in LaGrange. They are having several kindergarten and first grade classes from Westview School Corporation, Prairie Heights School Corporation and Lakeland School Corporation come to Par-Gil to meet Smokey and learn his message of “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires.” The students learn Smokey Bear’s Five Rules for Fire Prevention which we all should heed. The five rules are 1) Only you can prevent wildfires, 2) Always be careful with fire, 3) Never play with matches or lighters, 4) Always watch your campfire, and 5) Make sure your campfire is completely out before leaving it.

May you all have a safe autumn visiting our city, county, and state parks.