County honors Smokey Bear, then and now

Supervisor Kathryn Barger with Smokey Bear at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday. courtesy photo, Barger staff.

Smokey Bear, icon of the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history, received special attention Tuesday from county supervisors recognizing 75 years of getting out the “prevent wildfires” message.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger presented the U.S. Forest Service mascot with a county scroll Tuesday in recognition of the 75th anniversary of Smokey Bear.

Barger, who represents District 5, which includes the Santa Clarita Valley, arranged the special presentation, which ended up eliciting a welcomed response by the federal officials — with Smokey Bear front and center.

“Our forest supervisor, Jerome Perez, was in attendance with Smokey Bear and two other forest staff members,” said Nathan Judy, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.

“We didn’t have any role planning the ceremony. It was requested, set up and arranged by Supervisor Barger and her staff,” Judy said. “It was in honor of Smokey Bear’s 75th year of preventing wildfires.”

Smokey Bear — which many remember as Smokey The Bear — first caught the public’s eye in 1944 when the character was created.

In the past 75 years, the bear, which Forest Service officials say is one of the world’s most recognizable characters, has kept pace with the changing shape of wildfires.

Smokey’s original catchphrase was “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” In 1947, it became “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” 

In 2001, it was again updated to its current version of “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests and to clarify that Smokey is promoting the prevention of unwanted and unplanned outdoor fires versus prescribed fires.

Since the Woolsey Fire, Smokey’s message has become much more involved.

“As Smokey — a national symbol of wildfire prevention — knows, every unplanned wildfire comes with its own set of challenges with multiple factors that influence fire behavior,” Judy said Wednesday. 

Wildfires are unplanned fires that burn in forests and other wildlands, such as shrub or grasslands. 

Preventing and fighting unwanted fires begins with understanding the science of how they start, and why they continue to be such a big problem, he said.

On the changing nature of wildfires and why the number of acres burned remained so high over the last few years, Judy cited several factors.

  • The increased complexity of implementing fire suppression, especially with the increased residential development in the wildland urban interface.
  • The increased complexity of implementing fuel-treatment programs has resulted in hazardous accumulations of forest and rangeland debris, and fuels such as fallen leaves, branches, excessive plant overgrowth, ladder fuels and dead vegetation. 
  • Climate change is producing drier and hotter weather patterns and longer “fire seasons.”
  • Overcrowded stands and drought patterns result in cyclical insect and disease outbreaks, which create large areas of dead and dying wood.

This past summer, Barger emphasized the need for stepped-up collaboration among agencies and cited the Woolsey Fire of 2018, which burned close to 97,000 acres, as an example of the changing nature of wildfires in California.

“After the Woolsey Fire, we learned that fires are no longer seasonal,” Barger said. “We didn’t have aid coming down from upstate because they were fighting fires up north.

“The Woolsey Fire was a wake-up call,” she said. [email protected]
On Twitter: @jamesarthurholt

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