The fun months of summer bring hot, dry weather, not only to the southwestern United States, but in this year, 2018, throughout many states as drought is widespread. Weather cycles and climate changes have been cited as the reason for the increase in fire danger in Colorado and New Mexico. California is experiencing some of the worst wildfires in its history, destroying acres of state park land. The first week in August a fire in Northern California doubled in size, killing a firefighter in Yosemite National Park while threatening the entire park. The White House recently approved a disaster declaration for Shasta County in northern California, a remote and beautiful area that is fighting catastrophic forest fires. These fires also encroach on populated areas, destroying many homes in their path. So far in 2018, over 3,362,431 acres have been burned by wildfire across the U.S. That’s an area a bit smaller than the whole state of Connecticut!
While we’re enjoying the beauty of natural lands with our canine family members, there are thousands of wild animals fleeing for their lives to escape fires raging through their woodland homes. Deer, elk, mountain lions, raccoons, rabbits, snakes, insects and birds are lucky to escape with their lives, not knowing which way to run as they try to escape the incredible heat and destruction of the forest fires.
(Pictured) The original Smokey Bear frolicking in a pool at the National Zoological Park
“Smokey Bear” was a wild bear cub trapped in a forest fire in New Mexico in 1950. The cub was spotted by 30 firefighters who hoped that mamma bear would show up to assist her wandering cub. Unfortunately, the fire overtook the crew. Caught in the blaze, the firefighters survived by laying facedown on a rock slide as the fire burned past them for over an hour. The lone bear cub was not so lucky. Although he survived by taking refuge in a tree, his paws and hind legs were burned. A local rancher and a few members of the fire crew kindly took the bear for first aid. The little cub was transported to Santa Fe where his wounds were cared for by veterinarians. We can only assume that the mother bear was not as lucky as her helpless cub.
Newspapers spread the story of the recovering animal bringing national attention to the dangers of forest fires. The post office received so many letters and gifts of honey for little “Smokey Bear’ that the post office had to assign him his own zip code! The New Mexico game warden contacted the chief of the forest service, and offered to return the cub with the agreement that little “Smokey” be the figurehead of a conservation and wildfire prevention program dedicated to spreading publicity to park visitors regarding the dangers of wildfires and how to aid in their prevention.
Smokey was transported to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and spent his remaining days as a symbol for forest fire prevention. A song written about him, “Smokey the Bear” (Peter Pan Records) became very popular. The songwriters, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, needed an extra syllable in the rhythm of the tune, so added the word ‘the’ between his name, hence he was commonly called “Smokey the Bear” although his official name remains “Smokey Bear”. Smokey died in 1976 and was returned to Smokey Bear State Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico where he was buried in the park bearing his name.
What causes wildfires?
The U.S. National Park Service reports that 90% of wildfires are caused by humans! Specifically, campfires left unattended, discarded cigarettes not properly extinguished, and outright malicious acts of arson. Power lines and catalytic converters on cars also start wildfires with spontaneous sparks jumping onto dry or grassy areas. The only natural causes of wildfires are lava flows and hot lightning bolts that touch down to the ground. Clearly, humans have the most destructive effect on the environment regarding fire.
Please, always practice fire safety when visiting the National Parks and historical areas throughout our beautiful country. Avoid parking your car near dry grass or leaves as the exhaust pipe is very hot and the catalytic converter can spark. Both can cause spontaneous combustion with disastrous results.
Always check for the rules in your park or camping area. Many parks post flags displaying the current fire danger for the area. Use common sense and obey the rules. They’re there for a very good reason!
General Fire Rules
- If fires are allowed in your campground, properly prepare your fire pit if one isn’t already available.
- Always choose an area that is at least 15 feet from tents, shrubbery, trees or other flammable objects.
- Keep the fire pit away from low hanging branches, on a level area away from brush or logs.
- Dig a pit in the dirt at least one foot deep and circle the pit with rocks.
- Be mindful of the wind as a sudden gust can result in sparks spreading, ending in catastrophe for the forest.
- Dispose of trash properly and don’t place things like aerosol cans, plastic or glass in your fire as they can explode and cause a disaster while sending dangerous fumes into the air.
- Never leave your fire unattended and keep the size small. This is not the time or place for a bonfire of epic proportions.
- Keep matches in a safe place, always out of the reach of children who may unwittingly start a forest fire.
- Never, ever, throw cigarette butts on the ground. Aside from littering the forest areas, cigarettes are not always ‘out’ when you think they are.
The same goes for your campfire.
- Always extinguish your fire after letting all the wood burn down to ash.
- Pour water over the site including all embers, not just the obvious glowing embers. Continue pouring water on the fire pit until the hissing stops.
- Stir the ashes and check to make sure your fire is completely extinguished.
- If you don’t have water, use a small camp shovel to bury and stir the remains of your campfire.
- Scrape any sticks or logs of embers being certain none are exposed or smoldering from sight. Continue adding dirt or sand until all materials are cool to the touch.
- If it’s “too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.”
Pack up all your belongings, including your trash. Too often campers leave remnants behind of their visit, not only in the forest but along the beach campgrounds as well. If there are no trash cans, take the items with you to be disposed of properly. Never throw trash out of your car on the roadway, as animals will catch the scent and be in danger of getting hit by cars on the access roads when searching for an easy snack.
Remember, “take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.