Opinion: Hand over your hat, Smokey, it's time to retire

Smokey Bear has reminded generations of North Americans that "only they can prevent forest fires." But those in the fire management community say the message, and the philosophy behind it, has actually made the fire situation worse. Fire historian Stephen Pyne explains why he wants Smokey to retire.
Smokey the Bear in Nova Scotia. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)

Smokey Bear: protector of forests, or inadvertent cause of massive modern wildfires? 

Ask anyone in fire management, and they'll tell you it's more the latter. Which is why Stephen Pyne says it's time to retire the old mascot. 

The problem with that strategy, that Smokey came to be a spokesman for, is that it eliminates all fires, and there are good fires as well as bad fires.- Stephen Pyne, fire historian

Pyne, a fire historian who has studied and written about wildfire for decades, says Smokey's message, and the philosophy behind it, have helped create the big, destructive fires we see today. 

"The problem with that strategy, that Smokey came to be a spokesman for, is that it eliminates all fires, and there are good fires as well as bad fires. And eliminating the good fires, has unhinged a lot of ecosystems which require fire of the right sort, and it's allowed these systems to change and they've frequently changed in ways that have made for more intense, larger, in some cases more savage fires."

Bears aren't the only animal used to warn about fire. This poster was spotted on a heritage steam train in Summerland, B.C. in 2013. ((Kathryn Marlow/CBC))

Pyne says fire management practices started changing decades ago, with a recognition that not all fire is bad. Instead, some naturally started fires are allowed to burn to clear up the landscape, and use up fuel, and there are also carefully considered prescribed, or controlled fires, which are set intentionally with the same goal. 

He says if the strategy has changed, it's time for a new message too-- a more nuanced one that acknowledges that not all fire is bad. 

And because Smokey is so tied to the old message, maybe it's time for him to retire. 


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