Who Remembers Smokey the Bear?

News Reports and Remembering

Recent photos of burned and displaced kangaroos and koalas from massive Australian wildfires are heartbreaking and bring back memories of both fighting and setting fires in American woods and prairies.

As a 24-year-old US Forest Service Hot Shot back nearly 50 years ago I had the good fortune to help contain three wildfires in Southern Idaho. One left a memory of towering flames roaring up a steep slope toward my crew as we hurriedly dug a fire line parallel to the ridge. I wielded a chainsaw, dropping pines and firs toward the approaching flames. It was noisy, hot, and scary but our line, with the help of an airplane that dropped a load of “slurry”, stopped the blaze.

Not All Fires Respond the Same

Just a year later I lit a fire in dry prairie grass at the Dillon Nature Center in Hutchinson, Kansas. It roared onward until stopped dead by a mowed path. Green grass doesn’t burn.

We burn our prairie and oak woodland at Winding Pathways every year, usually in the fall because we know that our land, like much of North America, needs fire for good ecological health.

Misleading Reporting

Evening news stories about the terrible destruction of wildfires can be misleading and are never complete because:

     * They show the most incinerated place in a vast burned area. Sometimes the land is not nearly so consumed by the fire.
     * They never follow up. Months after a burn the same spot is lush with green growth and spangled with wildflowers. 

Fire is as much a force of nature as rain and wind. Yes, they destroy houses in their path. Remember, often these were built in the woods without the fire-resistant construction recommended by the US Forest Service. In North America, fires don’t destroy forests or grasslands. They invigorate them.

Every year we look forward to abundant wildflowers and healthy grass in areas we’ve burned.   But what about wildlife caught in a rapidly spreading fire?  I’ve had the opportunity to watch rabbits, birds, deer, and even elk respond to flames.  They don’t panic. Rabbits simply seem to hop to places unlikely to burn.  So do deer. Snakes and some insects might enter holes and tunnels in the ground. Some are probably cooked. Baby animals would be unable to flee flames. Fortunately, spring fires, when babies are helpless, are rare.

2019 marked a huge fire event. It was Smokey the Bear’s 75th birthday!  I love Smokey. He is one of the most successful marketers ever convincing people to drown campfires and snuff out matches. Smokey was so successful that fires became rare enough for plenty of dead wood to accumulate in Western Forests. That, combined with climate change, helped create the conditions for the catastrophic fires that have burned in recent years. Smokey’s message was a little off, but he’s still a loveable character.

Here is how he came to be. In 1950, after the Smokey Bear character was created, a singed bear cub was found after a fire. He lived for years in the National Zoo in Washington, DC. Known as Smokey, millions of people saw him until his death in  1976. He’s buried near the Smokey Bear Museum in Capitan, New Mexico.

An outstanding website about Smokey and wildfires is sponsored by the US Forest Service.  If you are ever in Moscow, Idaho, be sure to stop at the Smokey Bear store on Main Street.  


Winter Reading with Winding Pathways Gazette Features

Winding Pathways invites readers to enjoy past features in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Wandering Nebraska and South Dakota’s Rich Fossil Freeway. Follow US Highway 20 across northern Nebraska while exploring its fossil-rich history.  Along the way wet your line in trout streams, paddle clear rivers through sandhills, camp in a National Forest in the Great Plains, and bicycle parts of the Great American Rail-Trail. Then, end up in the enchanting Black Hills of South Dakota.

Alaska In Winter. Most folks experience Alaska in summer.  Winter has its rewards, too!  Plenty of activities for outdoor enthusiasts and mild-mannered indoor types. Museums. The Bear Tooth Theatrepub. Great eateries. Iditarod Ceremonial Start. XC ski races. Campbell Creek Science Center.  And, perhaps most wonderful of all – no skeeters or bears!

Indiana Dunes National Park.  A great stop while speeding along I-80 is the Indiana Dunes National Park.  A cooperative venture among city, county, state and federal government, this necklace of preserved areas rings the southern end of Lake Michigan. Soft sand beaches to explore, dunes several hundred feet high to scale, charming villages, bicycle trails to follow, and varied places to rest your head at night. This new national park can fulfill any family’s vacation dreams.

America’s Magnificent Mounds line the Mississippi River and many other waterways in North America.  While most mounds have been lost to “development” many remain. And, travelers can learn so much about ancient cultures and appreciate why preserving these mounds is important.

2019 Labyrinth Walks

Labyrinths have been integral to this year’s activities. Locations have spanned from the East Coast to the deep South, and from Alaska to Hawai’i. Catch up with Winding Pathways’ 2019 walks at 1080 Laughing Labyrinth website.

May you enjoy labyrinth walks in 2020. Join Veriditas Council for a Qualifying Workshop for those interested in learning more about labyrinths.  For trained facilitators a Renewal Day in Rapid City, SD, April 25, 2020.

Solvitur Ambulando.

Fire In the Yard!

A few minutes after we dropped a match into our front yard’s dry prairie grass, the wind unexpectedly puffed up. Almost as fast as an explosion, eight-foot flames roared up from the burning grass. Our yard was on fire. The heat was intense as the fire zoomed toward our house.

Fire in prairie

The grasses catch quickly and subside as quickly.

Were we worried?  Nope. Between the fire and the house was a three-foot mowed lawn, then our ten-foot-wide driveway and finally another 30 feet of mowed green lawn.   Asphalt and green lawn don’t burn. When the raging blaze met the first strip of lawn it almost immediately calmed. Soon all the dry prairie was consumed, and with a final weak smoke puff, the fire was out.

From many years of experience with fire and its impact on the land, we know that our annual burn will stimulate a rush of colorful wildflowers next year while toasting any unwanted brush that tries to establish itself in our grassland.


It seems like almost every evening newscast shows photos of burned-out homes, usually in California, and reports of wildfires rampaging across the landscape. It’s easy to become fire scared without understanding how, where and why fires burn, their benefits, and how to protect a home from a wildfire. News reports and photographers frequently show the worst appearing spot and never return months later to show the profusion of wildflowers and tree seedlings the burn created.

As a former Forest Service Hot Shot, and with nearly 40 years of prescribed burning in prairies and oak savannas, Rich has much fire experience. Marion has been tending prescribed burns for years. They annually burn the prairie and savanna surrounding their home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Here’s their perspective.


Many of us remember grade school history lessons telling of Europeans discovering a forest primeval when their sailing ship landed along the East Coast.  We often have the notion that North America in 1492 was pristine and untouched by people, allowing trees to grow into an immense phalanx. It wasn’t so.

Historical ecologists know that North America’s vegetation had been altered by people ever since humans colonized the continent some 11,000 years ago. The Eastern Forest that European explorers found had burned frequently, with most fires started by Native Americans. This created an open woodland of massive trees. Sunlight reached the ground, stimulating a dense growth of wildflowers and grasses. There was little brush, making it relatively easy to walk through the woods.

Prior to the settlement of North America by mostly Europeans, the land burned often enough that vegetation became dependent upon frequent fire. Indigenous people set fires because the resulting landscape produced more food from an increased abundance of wildlife and acorns, berries, and other edible plants stimulated by fire. Europeans generally viewed fire as an enemy and began suppressing it almost as soon as they colonized the continent. This fire aversion is reinforced by modern newscasts showing burned-out homes and towns.


Like the weather, fire is a natural force that sculpts the landscape and its vegetation.   Many ecosystems decline in health when years go by without the rejuvenating impact of a burn. Areas suffering from fire starvation tend to build up flammable brush and tree debris, creating a potentially devastating future fire.


Knowledge of the predictable aspects of a fire helps us manage burns near our home at Winding Pathways as well as helping fire managers plan prescribed burns and fight out-of-control fires. Fires generally burn most vigorously when:

  • The humidity is low.
  • The wind is strong because fires burn faster with the wind.
  • There is a steep slope because fires tend to burn fastest uphill.
  • There is an abundance of dry fuel.

We take all these factors into account before we start a fire. For example, if we want our fire to move slowly and be easiest to control, we set it to run against the wind, downhill, and at a time when the humidity is high, usually before 10 a.m. If the area is reluctant to burn, we’ll do it when the humidity is low and plan it to go with the wind and upslope.


Early in the season, we get a fire permit from the county.   It requires us to check the air quality and only burn on days when it is good. We call the sheriff’s office before we burn so they are aware of our activity. We also prepare firebreaks and reinforce our nonburn able asphalt driveway with mowed strips of lawn.  Before lighting it, we have our water turned on, the hose stretched out and ready if we need it, and have a backpack fire pump called a “Smith Indian” ready to use to stop or slow the burn.


It is tragic when communities and homes are ignited by wildfires. Almost all are in Western coniferous woodlands or in California’s chaparral vegetation. These plants burn with extreme heat and create embers that blow in the wind, igniting new patches of forests and homes. Ironically many western plants, including Lodgepole pine and chaparral require fire to seed or be invigorated, yet people often disregard the risk and build fire-prone homes within historically fire-prone areas. Building a home in a flammable wood is akin to building in a floodplain or on a bluff over the ocean. It’s risky. Always have good insurance and follow fireproofing directions provided by the US Forest Service, insurance companies and others. In contrast, fires in Eastern deciduous woods rarely ignite homes. Here are a few resources for tips on how to reduce the odds that a wildfire will ignite a home:

Sierra Club and Protecting Your Home from Wildfire

Smokey Bear

The US Forest Service has extensive information online on how to protect a home from fire.

Individual Insurance Companies also provide information on fire protection.

We appreciate watching the impact of prescribed burns on the plants at our home at Winding Pathways. In the spring following a fall burn our savanna ephemeral wildflowers thrive and grace our property with color. By summer prairie wildflowers dance in the wind in our front yard.  We’ve attached a few photos of our fires and resulting wildflowers.

Gratitudes 2019

For many people, 2019 was a roller coaster year in some respects. A habit I have developed is writing down each day a gratitude on a sticky note and placing each in a jar on the counter. Then, at the end of the year (three years now) I read them and select a few to remember. These are randomly selected.

In General – * Several times throughout the year we enjoyed breakfast, coffee or dinner with neighbors and friends.
* Yoga classes are always an activity I am grateful for.
* Healing energy work at home and the Nassif Community Cancer Center.
* Computer help from Turner Web Marketing and Dustin at Kirkwood.
* Taking in displays at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art with a friend.
* The year-long Shaman class.  Meeting new people, learning different techniques and having the similarities of techniques affirmed.

January – * Grateful we have a competent tax consultant to help with tax ins and outs.
* We found an important letter that had dropped in the snow at the mailbox.

February – * After bitter cold for weeks on end, we had a sparkly, mild winter day.  Birds singing and the sun strong enough to melt snow and ice.
* The previous year I had investigated possible sites for Renewal Day 2020.  One of the excellent sites, Outlaw Ranch in the Black Hills, contacted me for an update. They were gracious when I explained the Veriditas Council had chosen a different location. The Ranch is a great location.  A concern is that late April we could have a “snowbound” event.
* We’ve done monthly Facebook Live shows with Hoover’s Hatchery featuring Winding Pathways chickens: what’s new, how to, humor and gratitude for the hens.  And, I hammed it up for KCRG-TV doing a FB live at the Nassif Community Cancer Center promoting their wellness center.
* A friend fixed our water pipe going to the outside, so it would not freeze up.

March – * Nancy arranged flights for me back East when Claire Patterson died. The ZOOM meeting from The Lake went well. The remembrance time at “33” on a beautiful late winter day – snowdrops outside the kitchen door. Coffee with Nancy before we separated to our respective terminals for flights. Flights on time!

April – * Excellent support from the Interreligious Council of Linn County and Lisa R. for the Global Healing Response program.

May – * A quiet student in the Journey’s class opened up day three, smiled and shared. Wonderful!

June – * Jazz festival Elkhart, IN. NYC with D and A and her mom. B-day celebrations by Jack and Marie. Quite the antipasto feast. Fireworks as we came back to Denville on the bus! Fireflies when we returned home.

July – * Walk labyrinth in the early morning.

August – *Journeys with outstanding colleagues.

September – *Tour of the Elmcrest Country Club by JH, who was so gracious to my sister and brother-in-law who is quite the golf enthusiast.
* Alaska adventures with B and N.
* House re-roofed.

October – * Visit with friends in Ohio. Attending the simple Sunday evening service at a retirement home. Labyrinth walks at Cedar Lake and Parsippany.
* Veriditas Council meeting to plan Renewal Day and Qualifying Workshop 2020 in The Black Hills.

November – * Dan and Amy’s wedding in the East. Fun times. Music. Food. Relatives and friends.
* Cleaned the prairie after the wimpy burn. Goodness the ground is wet and the air humid this year.
* Thanksgiving with friends here.

December – * Re-connecting with a massage therapist I know from another venue.
* D. came to Scott Mansfield’s memorial service.
* Calls from and to families.
* Kopecky’s hosted us and a family far from home.