In October 1970, wildfires were much on the mind of people in California. From Sept. 22 to Oct. 4, 773 wildfires in Southern California burned 576,508 acres and destroyed 722 homes. Sixteen people lost their lives. The fires of 1970 included the Laguna Fire, the largest 20th Century fire in the state at the time.
I was a sophomore journalism student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and assigned to interview students and professors in the fledgling Natural Resources Management Department. They wanted to share a new way of looking at wildfire. In fact, their point of view was an indictment of the Smokey Bear campaign and the first I would hear of a history of fire suppression by the Forest Service.
I had no way of knowing that the shocking devastation of California’s fires of 1970 would be eclipsed time and again. Or that I would go on to cover many, many wildfires as a newspaper reporter and editor.
That article, with the byline Claudia Galloway (my maiden name), was published in Mustang Daily, student newspaper of California State Polytechnic College, San Luis Obispo, California, on Oct. 13, 1970. Here it is (and please remember, I was just a sophomore when I wrote this; yes, there are errors):
Hey Smokey: Got a match?
By Claudia Galloway
“With a ranger’s hat and shovel and a pair of dungarees, you will find him in the forest always sniffing at the breeze. People stop and pay attention when he tells them to beware, that’s why they call him Smokey, he’s the fire-prevention bear.
“Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear, prowling and growling and sniffing the air. He can spot a fire before it starts to flame, that’s why they call him Smokey, that’s how he got his name.”
So goes a song about Smokey Bear, whose familiar face greets motorists and campers in the National Forests and elsewhere throughout the country, reminding them to drown their campfires, crush their cigarettes, break their matches, and help prevent forest fires.
For about 40 years the government has used the Smokey Bear image in an effort to prevent forest fires. Yet recent evidence seems to show that the program may be hurting the very forests it was designed to protect.
“People don’t realize that not all fire is bad,” says Marvin Whalls, a Natural Resources Management instructor. The Smokey Bear program has led the public to believe that forest fires are bad and must be prevented.
“Actually, fire is a part of the environment. Except for the problem with erosion and property damage to man, fires would be almost entirely advantageous,” Whalls continued. “What we have to worry about, though, is wildfire.”
Wildfires are a different story. While fire as a management tool is being used with success more and more today, catastrophic wildfires, such as the ones in California recently, burn indiscriminately and uncontrollably.
Conditions were conducive to major wildfires this fall. The abundance of new growth from the heavy rains two years ago coupled with the relatively dry winter of last year caused a lot of dense, dry undergrowth in the forests. Drop a match, or let a spark fly, and you can have a wildfire.
By attempting to persuade people to be more careful of fires, the Smokey Bear program does help some; but the problem lies not so much in the actual starting of a fire as in the condition which lead to an area being a fire hazard.
Control of the fires is the key.
“More and more people are realizing the importance of using control burns – the difficulty is in getting the public to accept them,” says Dr. R.J. Greffenius, also of Natural Resources Management.
John Delmonte and Frank Hinman, both students in Natural Resources Management, pointed out that, like most things, control burns have their good and bad points. Control burning is helpful in that, by burning away the dense, dry underbrush, it reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Also, the aftermath of a fire produces an increase in wildlife production. This may seem unbelievable since we are used to thinking of fire as ravaging the forests and leaving animals homeless.
Actually, a fire helps the animals by providing more open spaces, which they prefer to heavy underbrush, and more fresh food.
By removing the larger trees, the fire provides space for the animals, more food, and a greater short-term water yield. In short, fire contributes greatly to the total ecology of the forest.
Of course, there are disadvantages of control burning. One is that after a fire – either a control burn or a wildfire – the land is left denuded and there is an increase in erosion and siltation. Naturally, replacing is done immediately after the fire, but the success of the replanting depends largely upon the weather.
And there, my story ends. That wasn’t actually the end of the article, but the Mustang Daily was a student newspaper, and the editor failed to indicate that the story was supposed to “jump” from the front page to one of the interior pages, so that was that.
Precisely what I may have written in the remaining missing paragraphs I cannot recall, although I remember the contention that wildfires would be larger because the Forest Service had done too good a job of putting them out in the past. And in the ensuing years, I’ve learned much more about fire as a forest management tool and wildfire.
I’ve watched fire used successfully to clear underbrush with many of the attributes the students and professors touted in their interview with me nearly 50 years ago.
And I’ve seen fire reduce forests to wastelands, leaving blackened tree skeletons standing in a foot of ash after a fire burned so hot it sterilized the soil for years to come.
Prescribed fire, as the “control burns” came to be known, has become the preferred method of forest management in Western forests and is promoted by many environmental organizations.
And some prescribed fires have escaped, sometimes growing into monstrous wildfires that cause widespread desolation, destroy property, cost millions to fight, and even kill.
My wildfire history
Beginning with this first article, published in October 1970, I covered issues related to natural resources management, public lands and wildfires off and on for nearly 50 years.
Much of this work was in Central California, where I covered Sequoia National Forest and Giant Sequoia National Monument for several newspapers. While living and working in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County, I covered many wildfires. And earlier I developed an interest in forest management issues while living and working in Cambria, California.
But when I left my last full-time job as a newspaper editor in July 2015, I thought I had left journalism behind.
Chetco Bar Fire
I moved to Brookings, Oregon, a few months later. I can’t say that I lost interest in either journalism or wildfires, but my focus was on other things.
When our typically peaceful life in Brookings was disrupted during the summer of 2017 by the Chetco Bar Fire, I spent some time following the fire activity and delved a bit into the history of two previous massive wildfires in the area of the nearby Kalmiopsis Wilderness. I even attended a Forest Service meeting following the fire.
Because I read the local newspaper (Curry Coastal Pilot), I was aware of community concerns about the Forest Service response during the fire and also about the huge amount of dead and dying timber left behind.
Every time I read an article or a letter to the editor on the topic, I thought of my history with Smokey Bear. You see, long before I wrote the article for the student newspaper, I was a proud member of the Smokey Bear Club. I remembered the words to the song. And I wondered, back in 1970, if he was getting a bad rap.
In fact, that bear has been nagging at my subconscious since the Chetco Bar Fire. I believe Smokey really cares about the forest. I don’t think he’s happy about the “analysis paralysis” that has grown from our bureaucracy and polarization. The Chetco Bar Fire was first reported on July 12, 2017. Believed to be caused by a lightning strike, it had only burned 45 acres by July 15. The Forest Service later said that an initial effort to put the fire out was aborted due to firefighter safety concerns. The fire grew, slowly. Then more than a month later, between Aug. 19 and Aug. 28, hot winds drove the fire. It grew quickly to 125,252 acres. It was close to 200,000 acres when it was finally fully contained on Nov. 2.
By that time, Oregon, California, and much of the West had suffered through the most expensive fire season in history, with more than 71,000 wildfires scorching about 10 million acres. I’m sure Smokey wasn’t happy about that.
During the Azalea Festival Parade through Brookings on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend (May 26, 2018), I watched for Smokey. A community parade anywhere in the West is not complete without an appearance from Smokey Bear.
I had expected him up front, with all of the fire engines. Instead, he was toward the end of the parade, riding in a lone green Forest Service vehicle, tucked in between a group of colorful Jeeps and a float carrying smiling senior citizens.
Then, a few parade entries later, I noticed trucks carrying burnt logs and advertising a Forest Resources and Timber Rally and news conference to be held that afternoon. I was intrigued.
Notebook and camera in hand, I headed to the rally to see what was up.
I wondered who would speak and what they would say. Specifically, I wondered about the motivation of the organizers of the rally, a new group known as Curry Wildfire Prevention.
Were they most interested in public safety or the environment, or were they pushing for logging for the economic benefit?
I’m not against logging. I’m just aware of the history, and in my experience, an effort to push for logging after a devastating wildfire is likely doomed. The bureaucracy and political climate associated with salvage logging (harvesting the dead and dying trees) is such that the logs will likely have little value by the time they reach the mill, even if salvage logging is allowed. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good thing to remove the fuel, but if the logs have no value, there is no funding for that.
After attending the rally, it seemed to me that at least some of the 75 or so people gathered had an economic motivation. Not necessarily a personal motivation, but at least a general interest in the economic value of the timber. This observation isn’t meant to minimize the importance of economics to a community; I just like to understand what people value.
But there were other stories, too. Some at the rally had spent a long lifetime in the woods of Southern Oregon and were angry at what they believe was mismanagement of the Chetco Bar Fire by the Forest Service.
Others said they knew nothing about the Forest Service or the agency’s fire policy before their lives were disrupted by the fire. But after trying to learn more, they were horrified. They ended up believing that the Forest Service had bungled the Chetco Bar Fire and was working to cover up its mismanagement.
These folks are not unlike others I’ve known in other places. And I know they represent only part of the community. There were no representatives of the Forest Service on the agenda. A radio personality from Medford talked derisively about what he called “Gang Green,” meaning environmental organizations. Although Curry County is relatively conservative, I’ve read letters to the editor from local folks who support some of those organizations and have opinions different from those expressed at the rally.
A good story
In a perfect world, everyone would be at the table. But ours is not a perfect world. Some of the frustration I heard at the Forest Resources and Timber Rally in Brookings comes from people who feel powerless in the face of the bureaucracy and want their story told.
And I’m a sucker for a good story.
So I will be reaching out to speakers at the rally, and also to people who may not agree with them. I’m a journalist, not an activist. I like to understand all perspectives. I’ll share them as time allows.
I’m also a truth-seeker. Watching the Chetco Bar Fire from the sidelines, it did not appear to me that the Forest Service was making much of an effort to knock it down, at least as compared to other fires I have covered. That concerned me as I read more about two previous fires in the same area – the Silver Fire of 1987 and the Biscuit Fire of 2002. With the right conditions, I knew the Chetco Bar Fire could threaten the community where I lived. And then, not surprisingly, those conditions developed. When the city of Brookings went under a potential evacuation order, I passed out notes to my more elderly neighbors, offering my phone number in case they might need assistance.
For many people, though, evacuations were mandatory. Some people lost homes. Others are still trying to recover from the damage. Health issues from wildfire smoke are another legitimate concern. And it’s reasonable for people to ask if the Forest Service could have done a better job. If we don’t face our mistakes, we’re likely to repeat them.
The next fire
The communities in the region of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness will face a massive wildfire again; I have no doubt. And if you live in the West, especially near a Wilderness Area or other sizeable public land unit, your community probably has – or will – face devastating wildfire.
What inspired me at the Brookings rally was an undercurrent of determination. Some of those present have been meeting regularly for months. They are determined to come up with a way to ensure that the next fire will not have the same devastating outcome.
I’m a storyteller. That’s the way I try to help. So, I’m working to set up another website, “Smokey Bear and Me,” and will do my best to tell their stories in the journalistic tradition – and to share all sides in areas where there is disagreement.
I’m doing this for Smokey.
Please check back for a link to the new website when it’s published!