As the American West endures another record-breaking fire season, fueled in part by a historic drought, some scientists are urging Americans to rethink a few traditions they hold dear. Campfires and fireworks are two big ones. Smokey Bear is another.
Three-quarters of a century after the blue-jeans-clad bear first pointed a finger at us— “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” he proclaimed—more than 80 percent of all wildfires in the U.S. are still ignited, accidentally or intentionally, by humans. Humans spark 97 percent of all wildfires that actually threaten homes, according to fire ecologist Jennifer Balch of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Nathan Mietkiewicz of the National Ecological Observatory Network.
The risks are mounting.
“The main reason for these increased ignitions is people are moving into areas in close proximity to potential fuels,” says Megan Cattau, an ecologist at Boise State University. More than 46 million residences now border wildlands, and another two million acres of the “wildland-urban interface” get developed each year—at a time when climate change is making fire season longer, hotter, and more severe. In the Rocky Mountains, for example, subalpine forests are burning more than at any point in the past 2,000 years.
Fire officials are still investigating how California’s Dixie Fire, the state’s second largest wildfire ever, started, while Oregon’s Bootleg Fire is attributed to lightning.
All this has led to a renewed interest among land managers and scientists in figuring out how to keep humans from sparking wildfires in the first place. “People start most fires that threaten homes and threaten lives—that means we have some control over these ignitions, and the way to control them is to affect human behavior,” Cattau says.
That’s easier said than done, of course. In a recent article in The Conversation, Balch and Mietkiewicz suggested that perhaps Smokey’s slogan should be revised: “Only you can prevent wildfires that threaten your home.”
Significant shifts needed
Some scientists blame Smokey Bear for being too successful already, albeit not in the way he was intended: By helping persuade Americans that all fire is bad, they say, he contributed to the decades of reflexive fire suppression that have left much of the nation’s forests overgrown and more flammable than ever. Smokey must redirect his messaging, they say, to let people know that there is such a thing as “good fire”—prescribed burns that will remove excess fuel in a controlled way.
Smokey’s handlers say this suggestion mistakes the purpose of the icon.
“Smokey Bear is talking specifically about human-caused fire—he’s not anti-fire,” says Whitney Forman-Cook, communications director at the National Association of State Foresters, which runs the Smokey campaign along with the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council. “He just doesn’t want you to start one accidentally.”
Yet Smokey’s handlers agree that the campaign must constantly refocus its message to reach diverse and younger audiences and avoid disappearing into the media landscape.
“Focus groups over the last four years say they recognize Smokey’s face and his name, and they can even hear his voice,” says Forman-Cook. “But they don’t really listen to him and they don’t know what they can do to prevent a wildfire. We take this information and do everything we can to make Smokey relevant.”
The feedback informed an effort that targets 18- to-34-year-olds with announcements playing on screens in gas station pumps and airplane seats, on social media, and elsewhere. In the ads, Smokey’s animated head—topped with a tan ranger’s hat bearing his name in bold, black capital letters—channels celebrities’ voices.
Betty White exhorts viewers not to park on tall, dry grass where a hot exhaust pipe can start a wildfire; Al Roker urges homeowners to refrain from burning yard waste when it’s windy; and Isabella Gomez cautions picnickers not to dump hot coals or ashes on the ground.
Some state foresters use Smokey to supplement their own public service announcements. For example, the Texas A&M Forest Service (in Texas the state forest agency is part of the land-grant university) created a video featuring Chet Garner, host of the travel show “The Daytripper.” The spot appeared on gas station pump screens and encouraged drivers to “never burn leaves or debris on windy days” and “never leave a fire unattended.” Embers that escape burning debris are the top cause of wildfires in the state.
“We wanted to get the public used to understanding they have a responsibility to protect themselves and to protect firefighters and there are simple things they can do that make a big difference,” says Karen Stafford, a program coordinator with the Texas A&M Forest Service. Monitoring data show that the $88,000 campaign “prevented nearly 1,000 fires for a third of the state for six months -- that’s a huge impact,” she says.
Removing the threat
In Oregon, where the Bootleg Fire (which was ignited by lightning) has burned 646 square miles so far this summer and sent smoke on the jet stream to the East Coast, park officials banned some campfires as of July 22 “to protect life and property in what is already a very challenging and dangerous fire season.” Washington State went further, prohibiting through September 30 all outdoor fires on state, city, county, and private land under Department of Natural Resources fire protection. Such restrictions are more widespread and in place for far longer periods than they’ve been in the past.
Camp fires are the number one source of human-caused fire on about 240 million acres of forest land managed by the U.S. government. A blaze started by an unattended camp fire forced widespread evacuations and road closures in Utah’s Manti-La Sal National Forest about 14 miles southeast of Moab in June.
Fire prevention patrols discovered 30 abandoned campfires in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest over Mother’s Day weekend. Forest officials said in a statement that inexperienced campers failed to properly douse the flames.
“Several of the campfires they found were not still-smoldering ash but actually flaming, burning logs which no one had even attempted to extinguish,” said the release posted on a website operated by federal and state agencies.
To curb the risk presented by abandoned campfires, burn bans are likely to become more commonplace, particularly as the West grows more arid and crowded. In some fire-prone areas, they may need to be permanent, says Paige Fischer, a social scientist and associate professor at the University of Michigan who conducts research on how people perceive wildfire risk and what motivates them to act. She recently hiked by an untended campfire in Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest, where the forest service banned open fires as of July 12.
“There are going to be more changes around the design of campsites,” she adds, saying pits that are essentially an invitation to have a fire will need to be removed in vulnerable regions. “People are going to have to get used to camping experiences that don’t involve campfires.”
To better predict when stringent restrictions on open burning are necessary, scientists in 2016 incorporated fuel moisture indices derived from a network of weather stations into a fire danger rating system. The system is used by federal, state, and local land managers to more accurately identify dry areas where embers might easily ignite new blazes. Agencies alert the public to these risks in part with signs at the entrance to many parks where Smokey Bear’s arm points to a word designating the fire danger.
“No one really understands there is science behind where Smokey’s arm points,” says W. Matt Jolly, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. “We are seeing more extreme days and more severe fire conditions and that’s lengthening the time period we’re likely to be in restrictions.”
Taking the fire out of fireworks?
It’s not only campfires that Americans may need to rethink. Fireworks should also be prohibited in much of the West, particularly in regions gripped by a prolonged drought that’s created an abundance of tinder-dry fuel, scientists say. Sparks from explosive devices are credited with starting deadly and destructive blazes in recent years. In 2020, a pyrotechnic device set off during a gender reveal party in California sparked a blaze that killed a firefighter and injured 13 others. A teenager threw fireworks into a canyon in Oregon in 2018, igniting a fire in the Columbia River Gorge that burned almost 47,000 acres.
About 150 scientists signed a letter in June that was published on The Conversation urging people to forego the pyrotechnics, citing extreme heat and a record-setting drought that set “the stage for widespread fire activity.”
The missive was prompted in part by research showing that more fires are accidentally started on July 4—about 7,000 between 1992 and 2015—than any other day of the year.
Indeed, towns across the west, including popular Colorado mountain communities such as Vail, Beaver Creek, Aspen, Telluride, and Breckenridge, canceled fireworks displays this year, citing dry, windy, and hot conditions.
“As our climate conditions make vegetation more flammable, we have to look to the future and recognize the context of fire is different,” says Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, who came up with the idea for the letter after he and a colleague drove by a fireworks stand on the way to a mountain bike ride on a day that dozens of wildfires raged across the American West.
“What made sense in recent decades, or in the 20th century, does not make sense now,” he adds.