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.
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.