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 firstname.lastname@example.org.