Managing our forests and grasslands can no longer be the sole responsibility of Smokey Bear

I’ve always tried to make the blogs I write hopefully educational with some humor and common sense thrown in. I’ve been holding my tongue for quite a while as all these lightning and man caused fires have again burned up a lot of our grassland, woodlands and Chaparral habitat unnecessarily. Yes I said (unnecessarily) for fire has always been part of Mother Nature’s way of managing all of the growing things on the face of the Earth!

I know exactly when we the people decided that we could do a better job of managing our grass and forest lands. It started after a forest fire I believe in New Mexico with a picture of a forlorn bear cub sitting in the ashes of that fire. The year was 1944 and the campaign to stop unplanned human caused wildfires needed a symbol to rally around. So the U.S. Forest Service hired a public relations firm who created Smokey Bear the longest running public service announcement in U.S. history.

So the beginning of all the unintended consequences began. The worst of these was the slow but sure build up of dry matter, the result as old growth died to always be replaced with new living things, the cycle of life. Randomness and Lightning were her favorite methods of taking fire to every part of the landscape where there was enough dry matter to carry fire. So fire, I like to think of as a giant broom that Nature uses to keep her wildlands healthy. But “we the people” didn’t like the looks of burned over grass and trees and could only see harm. So we started to build ever bigger and better machines to stop the devastation so we wouldn’t have to look at the supposed wreckage to our grass and forest lands.

Smokey Bear said “only you can prevent Forest Fires” so we followed his lead by adding ever greater numbers of people, material and equipment to fill the ranks of this new Army of people armed with public support and their dedication to stamp out this menace to our (perception) of beauty. For a good many years we were all patting ourselves on the back at what a good job we were doing chasing this monster to its oblivious end.

Quietly as there were fewer wildfires the (circle of life) was relentless depositing to the soil surface ever greater amounts of Dry Matter, that most of the time would decompose to add fertility to the soil but sometimes when mixed with lightening which we the people had no control over was sort of okay. But to the human that dropped a cigarette or a campfire left not “dead out” there would be “hell to pay.” The dead and the dying leaves and grass continued to accumulate.

I was a member of the San Luis Obispo Range Improvement Association back in the 1960s and 1970s and through the summer months we would regularly have Control Burns on ranches who’s owner was a member. We were very successful at controlling our “Burns” and Cal Fire could see the benefit as a possible place to help stop an uncontrolled fire. But somebody up there didn’t like what we were doing. The answer was to place the liability for putting out the fire, if there was an escape, on the backs of the landowner. The cost of putting out a fire that was an approved control burn by Cal Fire could possibly be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The financial risk was too great to bear and control burning was relegated to the backwaters of Cal Fire policy “you could do it but you really couldn’t” and the fire load kept building.

My perception of when the wildfires of summer became harder to put out. I think it was about 10 years ago with some of the Santa Ana wind driven fires down in Southern California became very destructive because the mismanaged amount of stored dry matter on the ground equaled scalding hot conflagration that was almost impossible to put out.

Today is Tuesday August 25 and the lightning started fires are still rampaging mostly in Northern California much like the Camp Fire of 2018. The costliest and deadliest fire in California history. Only that time we couldn’t blame it on lightning, but on PG&E our now bankrupt electrical provider. P.G.&E was the unlucky one to get caught starting the CampFire, never mind that it was “we the people” who blindly followed the Pied Piper by the name of Smokey Bear for 74 years with his credo “only you can prevent forest fires.” While he built up these monstrous bank accounts of Dry Matter, scattered about the state. That when conditions are right, the devastation is something to behold.

I don’t know when the powers that be will recognize that the best way to fight fire is with fire? Add in some reduction of the fire load in our conifer forests by using some of our young people working with their hands, in the great out of doors, doing the critically important job of cleaning up the understory of accumulated “dry matter” that will help save our forests from fires that burn too hot. I think the direction is clear that Smokey Bear's misguided policy “that only you can prevent forest fire” has to go. This policy flies in the face of science based knowledge and plain old common sense about how best to manage forests and grasslands. It’s time to send Smokey packing before we allow him to do more damage to our Golden State.

See Ya


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