Smokey now says: ‘Only you can prevent wildfires’

Smokey now says: ‘Only you can prevent wildfires’

21 November 2009

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USA– Smokey the Bear is one of America’s most identifiable advertising cartoons. The image — a brown bear in blue jeans with a ranger’s hat, gripping a shovel — has stayed the same since Smokey’s creation in 1944, but his message has undergone a subtle change.

The slogan the bear originated, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” has been altered to “Only you can prevent wildfires;” evidence of the 180-degree turn that forest management policy has taken in this country since the mid-1900s.

The world Smokey entered was devoted to snuffing out all forest fires, but along the way we discovered something we probably should have figured out to begin with — forest fires serve a natural purpose, and eliminating them begets even worse fires years down the road.

This is why the practice of controlled burning, setting fires to clear underbrush that fuels the more dangerous wildfires, has become prominent. Florida, and Bay County, had fewer wildfires this year than in 2008, setting up a busy fall and winter of controlled burns for the Division of Forestry, which set three blazes last week, including one near its 15th Street office in Panama City.

“A lot of the time people get the wrong perception. They see smoke, and they assume it’s a wildfire,” Senior Forest Ranger David Kent said Friday. Kent was part of a group of DOF officials who offered support to a St. Joe Co. burn of 28 acres near the site of the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in West Bay, in case the blaze got out of control.

B&L Land Development is the company St. Joe has contracted to do controlled burning near the airport; it is one of several local companies certified by the DOF to light prescribed flames. B&L plowed a fire line around the pizza slice-shaped tract of land slated for the burn; the eight-foot wide path was cut into the soil to prevent flames from jumping to the surrounding forest.

Kent pointed out the difference between Florida’s forests present and past while walking along the fire line Friday morning. He motioned toward the slash pines filling the forest.

“One hundred years ago you would have had Longwood pines, and wire grass, much lower than this,” he said, pointing to a wall of bushes and shrubs.

This undergrowth used to be cleared by natural wildfires, according to Corey Wilson, forest area supervisor for the DOF in Bay County. As more people moved to Florida in the 1900s, fire was viewed as an evil, and prevented in the forest at all costs.

While people thought they were saving the environment by limiting wildfires in the middle part of the last century, they were actually allowing underbrush to overtake some forests, limiting pine growth, changing the eco-system and setting the stage for dangerously intense wildfires.

“In the last 40 years in Florida, we’ve been trying to play catch-up, doing a lot of mitigation work, and trying to prevent bigger forest fires,” Wilson said.

One of those bigger fires hit West Bay in May 2006. Wilson pointed to standing dead pines south of Friday’s controlled blaze, leafless timber that was ravaged by the 2006 flames. A small yard debris fire at a home on South Burnt Mill Creek Road spread into the forest, and torched more than 750 acres in a matter of hours.

There was no property damage from that fire, Wilson said, but the person who set the blaze paid hefty fire-suppression costs of about $50,000.

This year, there have been 191 wildfires in Bay County through Friday, and 2,635 statewide. Both numbers are below last year’s — 236 and 2,887, respectively. This means a busier dormant season of prescribed burning for Wilson and Kent. They set fires in Panama City and Callaway last week, part of 2,878 acres they plan to burn by March.

That doesn’t count the private burning, like that by B&L Land Development on St. Joe land Friday. Jim Moyers, wildlife biologist with St. Joe, demonstrated how controlled burns are set. Sporting a yellow, flame-retardant jacket, a hardhat and gloves, Moyers gripped a firepot — a steel canister that looks like a big Thermos with a spout.

Moyers held a lighter to the wick, igniting the fluid dripping out. He then walked along the inside of the southwest firewall, turning the firepot down and dropping spurts of flame to the ground.

“Alright, we’re lighting,” Moyers said as the flames slowly climbed north, curving unevenly through the grass and shrubs.

Wilson looked on from a few feet away and radioed to another DOF ranger on standby at the other end of the burn zone.

“Fire on the ground,” Wilson said.

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