Smokey has it wrong

  • By Les Palmer
  • Thursday, May 29, 2014 4:20pm
  • News

In 1944, Smokey Bear started saying, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Other than replacing “forest fires” with the more-inclusive “wildfires” in 2014, here we are, 70 years from when he started, and he’s still pointing a furry finger at us and telling us we can prevent wildfires.

The trouble with slogans is that they don’t use enough qualifiers. What bothers me most about Smokey’s is that he apparently believes that wildfires can be prevented. Sure, we can prevent some wildfires, but we’ll never be able to prevent all of them.

Before humans, lightning and volcanoes started fires. After the first Europeans began settling on the Kenai Peninsula in the late 1700s, the woods started burning more often. Tens of thousands of us now live on the peninsula, with more arriving all the time. Combine that fact with a warming climate, and it becomes likely that the peninsula will see an increase in the number of wildfires in the future.

People don’t usually start wildfires on purpose, although some do. Most wildfires are caused by accidents. In 1947, workers constructing the Sterling Highway accidentally started a fire that burned about 310,000 acres. The furry finger-pointing didn’t prevent it.

We have to accept the fact that it’s not if wildfires are going to happen, but when. Once we acknowledge that, we can focus on the real problem, which is letting fuels stack up until a monster, uncontrollable wildfire occurs, one that can kill people and destroy property, one like the Funny River Fire, which as this is written has burned more than 180,000 acres. It’s still burning, and still dangerous.

We could reduce the number of wildfires by conducting small, controlled, or “prescriptive” burns, but it’s easier said than done. The “powers that be” have been leery of prescriptive burns on the peninsula. They’ve wanted to burn, but didn’t want to risk starting a fire that went out of control, destroying homes and endangering lives. Even the risk of creating smoke over Anchorage has been enough to keep them from burning.

Deciding whether to conduct a prescriptive burn or not isn’t easy. Temperature, humidity, wind velocity and direction and other variable factors enter into the “to burn, or not to burn” equation. There’s uncertainty about how long fuels should be allowed to build up before they’re burned. There are differing opinions about how hot a fire should be in order to benefit a given ecosystem. No bureaucrat wants to risk his reputation, let alone his career, by making a mistake. Planning and conducting a burn is expensive, so budget cuts sometimes get blamed for not burning.

As more and more people come to the peninsula to live, visit and recreate, more and more wildfires will occur. Perhaps the Funny River Fire will prove to governmental agencies, land managers and federal lawmakers that a dangerous, out-of-control wildfire costs far more than an effective prescriptive-burn program.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

More in News

The Homer Spit stretching into Kachemak Bay is seen here on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Homer woman indicted over seaplane incident

Marian Tillion Beck was indicted on charges of negligent operation of a vessel and attempted interference with the navigation of a sea plane

Soldotna High School can be seen in this Sept. 2, 2021, photo, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion file)
‘Little Sweethearts’ family dance to debut at SoHi

The event will be hosted by SoHi’s freshmen student council

Soldotna City Council members interview city manager applicant Elke Doom (on screen) during a special city council meeting on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Doom, Bower named finalists for Soldotna manager gig

The two will visit Soldotna for in-person meetings on Feb. 7 and 13, respectively

The northern fur seal rescued by Alaska SeaLife Center staff is seen on Jan. 31, 2023, at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Kaiti Grant/Alaska SeaLife Center)
Northern fur seal pup admitted to SeaLife Center rescue program

The pup was reported by Sitka residents using the center’s 24-hour stranding hotline

The Kenai Community Library children’s section is seen on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Literary competition returns to local schools

Battle of the Books aims to instill in kids a love of reading

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire
Climate activists hold a rally outside the Alaska State Capitol Friday afternoon in advocacy for legislative action to improve Alaska’s renewable energy development and future sustainability.
Climate activists hold rally near the Capitol

Statewide organizations advocate for legislative action

Shanon Davis, the executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, hands out candy during the Sweeny’s St. Patrick’s Parade in Soldotna on March 17, 2022. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Davis to step down as Soldotna chamber head

Davis oversaw the implementation of Soldotna’s “Holding Our Own,” shop local program

Golden-yellow birch trees and spruce frame a view of Aurora Lagoon and Portlock Glacier from a trail in the Cottonwood-Eastland Unit of Kachemak Bay State Park off East End Road on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, near Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong)
State parks advisory boards accepting applications

Alaska State Park advisory boards provide state park managers with recommendations on management issues

Most Read