“Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires.” This iconic slogan has been a part of Smokey The Bear’s campaign for decades now. With more than 80% of wildfires in the United States started by humane carelessness, this long-running public service campaign is more important than ever.
History of Smokey Bear
In late 1944, the US Forest Service worked with artist Albert Staehle to create the first Smokey Bear poster, which depicted the now-famous bear pouring water on a campfire. But the campaign was initially started because many experienced firefighters and other men had been deployed during World War II, leaving communities in the US to deal with wildfires as best they could. The Forest Service worked with the Association of State Foresters and the War Advertising Council to create public service campaigns around wildfire prevention. These early campaigns were most definitely a product of their time and overtly racist.
Since 1944, Smokey has had a few different slogans, has been featured in many pieces of media, and even had an orphaned bear cub named after him! Less than ten years after Smokey’s debut, Congress removed Smokey from the public domain and now, the fees and royalties from licensing purchases go towards fire prevention education.
During part of the year, campfires can be so much fun! But poorly built or improperly extinguished campfires have caused many different wildfires that have burnt countless acres. Here are a few tips to safely have a campfire under the stars.
Pick the right time and place. This includes not building a fire in an area (like campgrounds) with rules against them or during dangerously dry conditions. State and national parks will often have burn bans and certain restrictions during the summer. Additionally, campfires should be away from gear, trees, branches, or grass.
If you're thinking about having a campfire maybe read the room and don't
— Washington State Dept. of Natural Resources (@waDNR) June 8, 2023
Build a safe fire pit. If you want to have a campfire on the ground, make sure to dig a pit that’s 1 foot deep and cleared of any debris (leaves, grass, etc). After that, build a fire ring with large rocks or bricks around the pit to create a barrier between the campfire and the rest of the site. All of this is assuming there are not any existing fire rings around; if there are existing pits, use those ones instead of making your own.
Don’t burn trash or yard waste/debris. Trash like car tires, plastic, and household garbage can be illegal to burn in some areas, as all of these things can create chemical fumes that are toxic to inhale and release dangerous pollutants. As far as yard waste or debris goes, there may be certain restrictions or ordinances that prevent it from being burned in a campfire.
Always have lots of water on hand. This goes for any sort of fire/smoke-related activity, including campfires, fireworks, sparklers, and barbeques. Gallon buckets full of water are always good to have around (but not close enough to the fire to melt any plastic of course!).
Properly extinguish the campfire. Allow the fire to burn out completely if possible and once it’s all ashes, drown them with water. A shovel can help make the water and ashes into a mud pie or help bury embers/ash. You’ll know when the campfire is officially out and safe to leave when the materials and area are cool enough to touch.
The 2020 El Dorado Wildfire, which burned more than 22,000 acres and claimed the life of a firefighter, was started by a Southern California couple’s gender reveal party. The party involved a smoke-generating device, which had been placed by a dry field and caught surrounding dry grass to catch on fire. But that event wasn’t the only time a celebration caused a wildfire. Between 1992 and 2015, more than 7,000 wildfires were caused by people on July 4th in the United States and more than half of the fires reported from 2014 to 2018 were sparked by fireworks.
With any event that includes fire, being prepared could potentially prevent unintentional wildfires. The same tips for campfires can also be applied to using smoke-generating devices and fireworks: don’t use on/around grass or under tree limbs/branches, know when and where fireworks can be used, have lots of water and first aid kits on hand, don’t let children set off fireworks unattended, don’t aim fireworks at people, and go over firework/fire safety with everyone involved.
As climate change continues to worsen and summers continue to be dry and hot, fire safety in all situations is important. As Smokey Bear says, only you can prevent wildfires!