This week, an American icon celebrates his birthday: Smokey Bear is turning 68.
He’s still a spry old guy, kept alive by the Ad Council and the US Forest Service. It’s New Mexico’s forests that have been taking a hammering. In 2011, the Las Conchas Fire was the largest in state history. Then this year, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in the Gila National Forest doubled its record. This summer also saw the state’s most destructive wildfire, the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso.
But believe it or not, there’s good news.
“Overall, our number of human-caused fires was down and a lot of that goes to awareness of the issue,” says Dan Ware, Fire prevention and outreach program manager for the New Mexico State Forestry Division.
It’s important to remember, he says, that the fires humans start are different from naturally occurring fires, which can actually benefit forests. “Our forests are fire-adapted, meaning every seven to ten years, fire would come in and kind of clean up the trash on the forest floor—the needles, the leaves, the dead and downed trees—and the forest would regenerate itself.”
Over time, human populations spread, and so did the idea of fire suppression. Forests became overgrown and nature was no longer allowed to take its course.
Now a mixture of proper land management and the proper use of fire can help restore forests, says Ware, to “pre-settlement” conditions—“in other words, a forest and watershed ecosystem that’s allowed to exist naturally and will benefit not just the trees and the native vegetation but also the wildlife.”
Crafted in the 1940s, Smokey’s original message of personal responsibility—“Only you can prevent forest fires”—still resonates. (The message was changed to “Only you can prevent wildfires” in recent years.)
Rewritten today, the message could be more nuanced, says Zander Evans, research director with The Forest Guild in Santa Fe. “I wish I could put it as succinctly as Smokey Bear does,” he says. “I think the new message has to be something along the lines of, we need to fit into our forested ecosystems, just as much as we need to avoid lighting them on fire.”
Humans need to adapt to local conditions, he says, like wildlife does.
“We need fire-adapted communities, and we need to acknowledge that natural role fire plays,” he says. “It can’t play that role everywhere, and everybody understands that, but it’s got to have a natural role out there somewhere.