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Friday, May 14, 2010

OLD SMOKEY

I find it interesting that during the “carboniferous age”, our planet was far more flammable than it is today. About 420 million years ago the air was made up of 40% oxygen, compared to today’s 20%.  All this “extra” oxygen came from the exultation of plants which had run such a riot over the earth that they laid down the vast coal beds which we mine today. But this plant-foria also left behind extensive beds of charcoal, hinting at vast forests that had burned before they could become coal. Today, dead wood burns at 150 F. But with twice the oxygen available, that flash point must have been reduced to within a few degrees of the high temperature of a hot summer’s day. The Silurian Age was, in short, a global tinder box, a hell on earth.
More recent charcoal records tell an equally interesting story. It seems that before the twentieth century there were a greater number of forest fires in North America than since. As long as there was a frontier, flames were used to conquer the land. Native Americans burned swaths of grasslands and forests to trap prey, and Europeans burned them to convert woods into farms and grazing lands. But with the closing of the American frontier – which happened in 1880 according to Professor Jackson Turner - all the land in America became property. It was owned by somebody or some corporation or the government. It was then that fire became not a tool but a threat. It was a brand new way of looking at fire. For the first time in history humans had made the moral judgment that fire was usually a bad thing.
In 1891, the Forest Reserve Act was signed by U.S. President Benjamin Harrison. It put 13 million acres of forest under Federal protection so it could be managed to maintain water drainage and lumber sources. Wildfires still remained largely beyond human control, even when humans had started them. In Yellowstone, America’s first National Park, only those 6 to 10 fires each year along the roads were combated, while the 35 fires in the back country each year started by lightning were allowed to burn themselves out; then came the drought year of 1910.
They called it The Great Fire. It was started by lightening on August 20th, with 2,000 fires already burning in the forests of Idaho and Montana. Three million acres burned, as did the towns of Avery, Falcon and Grand Forks Idaho, De Borgia, Haugan, Henderson, Saltese, Taft and Tuscor, Montana. The smoke was seen as far away as Watertown, New York. Eighty-six humans were also killed, including 28 members of “The Lost Crew” of firefighters.
That fall Henry Graves, Chief of the Forest Service, decided the key to fighting wildfires was the quick arrival at the fire by an adequate, trained force, armed with the proper equipment. And by 1935 enough resources had been committed to this fast response that the new Chief, Ferdinand Silcox, could order that all wild fires reported, must brought under control by 10:00 a.m. the very next morning. By 1939 the Forest Service had even established “Smokejumpers”, men who would parachute into remote back country and with shovels and hand axes, isolate a wild fire and tamp down any smoking embers. And that was when the story turned Hollywood.
On August 13, 1942 Walt Disney released his fifth animated feature film, “Bambi”. In the climax of the movie the adult Bambi and his father struggle to survive a raging forest fire. The Forest Service thought they had a good fit with that dramatic sequence and rented Bambi for use on wildfire warning posters. Unfortunately the movie was a disappointing dud financially, when the forerunners of the NRA protested this “insult to American Sportsmen,” since the movie showed hunters shooting Bambi’s Mommy. Disney decided to withdraw the characters for the duration of the war, which meant that the Forest Service had to go looking for another animated spokes-figure.
At the time the most famous firefighter in America was “Smokey” Joe Martin of the NYFD, who had just died in October of 1941, at 86. So the Adverting Council, which drew up the posters for the Forest Service, decided any new spokes-figure should be named for him. The very first poster of the new figure was released on August 9, 1944. It showed Smokey Bear (No “The” in the name) wearing blue jeans and a Forest Rangers’ hat, pouring water on a campfire. Three years later they added the caption “Remember, Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
On Thursday, May 4th, 1950, sparks from a camp stove started a fire in the Capitan Mountain Range, of the Lincoln National Forest in northern New Mexico. It eventually burned 17,000 acres. One of the crews sent to deal with the conflagration was a unit out of Fort Bliss, Texas. Over a couple of days, while they worked, the men saw a black bear cub running around in the burning forest, and finally, on May 9th, they were able to capture him. He seemed to have been abandoned, was about 3 months old, and was burned and badly singed.
The crew named him “Hotfoot Teddy” and turned him over to local veterinarian Edward Smith, his wife Ruth, and their two children, 15 year old Donald and four year old Judy. Everybody fell in love with Hotfoot, except Judy, who according to her brother, kept expecting the bear to bite her. And yet it was Judy who was used as a prop when the photographer from Life Magazine showed up to take pictures of the little bear with the bandaged feet.
Over night the little cute bear cub had his own comic strip and his own cartoons at the movies. The Forest Service recognized the value of Hotfoot, and he was flown to Washington, D.C., rechristened “Smokey Bear”, and given his own cage at the National Zoo. And there he resided, loping back and forth on his still tender feet until 1976, when he died at the ripe old age of 26. They buried the old guy back in New Mexico, in the forest of his birth. And about the time he died, so did the moral judgment about forest fires being bad.
As the Smokey Bear baby-boomers grew up, a more nuanced vision of fire in the wilderness took root. The Forest Service no longer uses the phrase “Forest Fire”, exchanging it for “Wildfire.” In 1965 , 94% of the public approved of the 10 a.m. policy. By 1970 that percentage had fallen to 46%, and by 2004 only 6%. Part of that was probably the cost of fighting the fires; in an average year over 84,000 wildfires burn over 3 million acres, at a cost of over $540 million, and the lives of 16 firefighters.
There is the perception that these numbers are going up, and but it is hard to measure that based on something less than a century of hard data. After all, the “Great Fire” of 1910 burned 3 million acres by itself. In 1988 Yellowstone Nation Park suffered 99,000 acres burned, 36% of the park. But nobody remembers the 1910 fire. Everybody remembers the fire of 1988. That’s human nature, and will never be cured.
British and American statistical studies have come to the conclusion that the fire season has gotten longer by 78 days since the 1970’s. Anthony Westerling of the Scrips Institution summed up the situation this way; “With the snowmelt coming out a month earlier, areas then get drier earlier overall...There's more opportunity for ignition.” Says Thomas Swetnam, of the University of Arizona has pointed out that, “Lots of people think climate change and the ecological responses are 50 to 100 years away. But...it's happening now…”
So poor old Smokey was lucky he was not born fifty years later, or he would have been in real trouble. That little cub had few tools for dealing with a fast moving forest fire, and none for climate change - but then neither do we. I mean, could we deal with twice the oxygen level that we have now? It would be helpful, I think, to remember we are not worried about climate change because of what it might mean for Smokey, or even Bambi. We should be worried about what it means for us.
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