By Payton Hampton
Published on August 8, 2018

Originally published by Deseret News.

Everyone’s favorite forest mascot turns 74 this month. Smokey Bear has long been a staple of forest fire prevention with the slogan “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

Over his career, Smokey has spread this message with far-reaching and sometimes counterproductive implications. His ideas have not evolved much over the past seven decades. It’s time he changed his tune.

I have a lot of respect for that old bear. Like many kids in fire-prone areas of the country like Utah, I grew up around Smokey. Smokey’s posters, TV ads and parade appearances helped draw me to the crusade of forest firefighting. To me, Smokey was a celebrity on the same level as Santa Claus or Brett Favre.

Smokey has done a lot of good. His messages about putting out campfires or being careful with matches or even keeping chains from dragging on the road don’t bother me — those are good things to teach. Preventing that kind of behavior is important, because it often happens around people and homes where a fire can cause harm.

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What is disturbing is the mischaracterization of all wildfires as destructive or bad. Using the word “prevent” carries with it an absolutist meaning — that fire is only a negative thing. Think about the other things we try to “prevent” — crime, hunger and disease, to name a few.

Fire can be a good thing. In fact, we need it badly. Without it, the forest and our communities will perpetually be at risk of extreme wildfires. That may seem like faulty reasoning, but allow me to explain.

Forests were meant to burn and then to heal and to rejuvenate — that is a natural part of their life cycle. A resilient forest is a patchwork of trees and open areas, made possible through periodic exposure to wildfire along with modern active-management practices such as prescribed burning and mechanical thinning. Wildfires serve a vital role: regenerating new growth and keeping the forest in its natural equilibrium.

The policies of immediate suppression advocated for by Smokey are depriving the forest of its natural mechanism to purge and restore itself. This has created unnaturally heavy loads of live and dead vegetation — and that is a recipe for extreme wildfires. While changes in land management policies are not a silver bullet — other factors such as warmer temperatures play a role in wildfire severity — it is something that can have an amazingly positive effect.

Already this year, wildfires have destroyed thousands of homes, killing civilians and claiming some of my firefighting brothers. If we had been using fire the way we should — letting fires burn when they aren’t threatening life or homes — it is possible many of these devastating consequences could have been prevented.

We can’t really blame Smokey for his views — the living emblem of his character was a scared, singed bear cub found by firefighters in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico during a wildfire. It is easy to understand why he would believe that wildfire hurts his forest friends and the landscape.

The Smokey Bear campaign has been effective — he is one of the most recognized mascots in modern history. According to the Ad Council, 80 percent of recreationalists recognize his message.

With such a large audience, it’s imperative that he spread the right message! Slogans such as “Close the book on forest fires” have spread harmful perceptions about wildfire. We cannot “Close the book on forest fires.” It is simply impossible. The choice is not between wildfire and no wildfire — there will always be fire in our forests.

Smokey, I know you love the forest, as do I. That’s why we need to let it burn under certain conditions. We can either have wildfire smoke or extreme wildfire smoke. We can either have fresh, healthy habitat or old, overgrown habitat. So please stop imploring us to just kick the can down the road, or our wildfire problem is only going to worsen.

Happy birthday this month, old friend. There are going to be many more generations of kids that look up to you as the advocate of the forest, as I did. I hope you become a better advocate of the forest soon. I, for one, know you can.

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