Smokey Bear Campaign Still Going Strong to Prevent Forest Fires

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A total of 5,228 wildfires, like this one on Juniper Road in Pender County, destroyed 21 homes and nearly 100,000 acres of forestland last year in North Carolina.

It’s one of the more famous quotes found in TV commercials and on posters. Smokey Bear points at you with shovel in hand and wraps up the message with, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

The Smokey Bear wildfire prevention campaign is more than 60 years old, a program started at the federal level that’s also carried out closer to home by the North Carolina Forest Service. Smokey Bear has been a symbol of fire safety and fire prevention since 1944. The purpose of the Smokey campaign is to create and maintain public awareness about the need to prevent wildfires.

“The Smokey Bear Program is extremely useful in emphasizing the dangers of fire to young children in a way they don’t soon forget,” North Carolina State Forester Wib Owen says. “This is evident by the fact whenever you see Smokey out in public he is often flocked by children and adults alike who all know that, ‘Only you can prevent wildfires.’”

While it may be one of the longest running public service campaigns ever, the importance is even greater in North Carolina after what happened a year ago.

The Forest Service determined a total of 5,228 wildfires were responsible for the loss of 21 homes, as well the destruction of nearly 100,000 acres of forestland across the state, especially in the Coastal region. While officials say some of the larger fires last summer started by lightning, Owen says that doesn’t diminish the significance of preventing fires started by people.

In fact, the U.S. Forest Service says nine of 10 wildfires nationwide are started through human negligence.

“This kind of devastation is difficult for homeowners and landowners to recover from,” Owen says. “What is important to understand is that some of the larger fires weren’t preventable, as they were caused by lightning, but those with a good forest management program, including the use of prescribed fire, will typically fare better after a large fire.”

Owen explains most of North Carolina historically experiences low intensity fire that clears out underbrush, opens up areas for wildlife, keeps bug populations in check and generates a number of other environmental benefits.

“What we are striving for in North Carolina is to reintroduce fire to our wildlands but under safe and controlled conditions to imitate the natural fire that used to occur every few years,” Owen says. “This will have the net benefit of reducing the number of catastrophic fires while improving the environmental conditions across the state.”

While North Carolina joined the nation earlier this spring to celebrate Arbor Day, N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler is encouraging state residents to plant trees throughout the year.

“Trees bring more than scenic beauty,” says Troxler whose office now oversees the state forest service after changes approved by the General Assembly.

“Large deciduous trees provide shade and cool houses in the summer, reducing the need for air conditioning. Evergreen trees can help save on heating bills by blocking the wind in the winter. Trees are also excellent filters for pollution that finds its way into our lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and underground sources of drinking water,” Troxler adds.

Owen explains that landowners interested in planting trees should consider species native to the state, because they typically require less maintenance and are better suited to the local soils and climate.

“As with anything you plant, be sure you are putting your trees in an appropriate and safe location,” Owen says. “We encourage you to follow ‘right tree, right place,’ meaning that before you plant a tree, know what it looks like at maturity and its site requirements.”

Owen adds the more trees that are planted and more adherence to Smokey Bear’s message, the better North Carolina can recover and prevent wildfires.

“Let’s all do our part to prevent any more devastating fires,” Owen says.

Burning Tips for Landowners

If there is brush on your property that can be burned,  the N.C. Forest Service offers several recommendations:

Make sure you have an approved burning permit. Landowners can obtain a burning permit at any N.C. Forest Service office, a county-approved burning permit agent, or online at ncforestservice.gov.

  • Check with the county fire marshal’s office for local laws on burning debris. Some communities allow burning only during specified hours while others forbid it entirely.
  • Check the weather. Don’t burn if conditions are dry or windy.
  • Consider alternatives to burning.  Some yard debris, such as leaves and grass, might more valuable if composted.
  • Only burn natural vegetation from your property. Burning household trash or any other man-made materials is illegal. Trash should be hauled away to a convenience center.
  • Plan burning for the late afternoon when conditions are typically less windy and more humid.
  • If you must burn, be prepared. Use a shovel or hoe to clear a perimeter around the area where you plan to burn.
  • Keep fire tools ready. To control the fire, you will need a hose, bucket, a steel rake and a shovel for tossing dirt on the fire.
  • Never use flammable liquids such as kerosene, gasoline or diesel fuel to speed debris burning.
  • Stay with the fire until it is completely out.

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