Smokey needs some help: Wildfire education should be a priority wherever it's a threat

Voices of the Clarion

Posted: Sunday, November 04, 2007

When I was growing up, every now and then my cartoons would be interrupted by Smokey the Bear telling me that only I could prevent forest fires. A few years ago, Smokey changed his catchphrase slightly to emphasize wildfires rather than forest fires, but the message is still the same.

As someone who grew up in Southern California, and with most of my family residing there, I watched with trepidation and worry as more than 900,000 people fled their homes. I followed closely as cars along the Pacific Coast Highway burst into flames, worried as Interstate 15 near the Riverside community of Temecula became choked with brown smoke and hoped that the more than 3,500 animals housed at the San Diego Wild Animal Park would survive as flames licked their enclosures. All but two animals made it through okay, thanks to the heroic efforts of the park's staff, but 14 employees didn't have homes to go back to.

According to a Los Angeles Times article that ran on Thursday, arson investigators said a 10-year-old boy is responsible for the Buckwheat Fire that burned 38,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes near the city of Santa Clarita. Apparently the boy was playing with matches on a ranch just north of the city, lit some dry brush and became alarmed when fierce Santa Ana winds blew the fire to dangerous proportions. The article also reports that the Los Angeles County District Attorney won't charge the boy with arson, but said his parents could be subject to lawsuits for the amount of damage the flames wreaked.

Either this kid has never heard of Smokey the Bear or a 30-second public service announcement wasn't enough to teach him how not to play with matches. Sounds like in addition to telling kids not to play with matches, they need to be aware of the conditions in which a wildfire could easily start, especially in a heavily populated region like Southern California. And even if police aren't going to bring charges against the boy, he should be made to apologize to the families whose homes burnt.

Fire departments here on the Kenai Peninsula take a proactive approach to teaching children not to play with matches and lighters, but teaching them about the danger a wildfire poses as well as how one starts is equally important. Everyone remembers the Caribou Hills fire that burned more than 50,000 acres last summer and even though a child didn't set the blaze, it could easily have been a 10-year-old boy experimenting with matches.

In addition to teaching fire prevention, wildfire prevention should be a priority as well. It isn't enough for Smokey to come on TV for 15 seconds, sing a catchy song and tell me that only I can prevent wildfires. Both kids and adults need to learn, and be able to recognize, the conditions in which wildfires can happen. In the cases of Southern California and the Caribou Hills, dry brush and dead trees fueled the fire while high-temperatures and winds fanned the flames. Wildfire prevention should be incorporated into the curriculem at an early age along with basic fire prevention.

After he caused 21 homes to burn down, I'm sure that 10-year-old boy will never play with matches again. I only hope he takes responsibility for what he did and not only apologizes to the families who will have to rebuild, but uses his experience to show his peers the real damage playing with matches can do.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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