Smokey the Bear Feels Misunderstood! Why Fire Can Sometimes be Good

by Dr. Danna Baxley, Director of Conservation 

We’ve all heard Smokey the Bear proclaim, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!”

Smokey stands as an iconic symbol of the U.S. Forest Service, and a beloved character in American culture. He even has his own website and a major following among American kids.

The message at the heart of Smokey’s campaign is that people should be responsible with fire, especially campfires and burning backyard garbage because unplanned wildfires are dangerous.

Although this message seems straight-forward, it has been misunderstood by many Americans who hear a very different message, a message that all fires are bad fires. This is not the case!  Unlike bad fires that are unplanned, good fires are carefully planned and result in benefits to both nature and people.

In honor of Science Week, Smokey asked that we share some fire science with our readers because Smokey is, after all, just a bear, and bears have a tough time writing blogs since the keyboard is so tiny…

Fire Whirl ©The Nature Conservancy
Fire Whirl ©The Nature Conservancy

Fires Create Their Own Weather –  Fire is a chemical reaction where oxygen in the air combines with a substance (fuel) and heat to produce flames, light, smoke, and more heat.  If a fire becomes big enough, it requires so much oxygen for the chemical reaction that it creates its own wind by sucking huge quantities of air into the fire.   This can result in fire whirls.

Some Trees Can’t Reproduce Without Fire –  Many natural habitats are totally dependent on fire.  For example, giant redwood trees can tower over all other trees, growing to be 50 feet and diameter and nearly 300 feet tall.  Their cones are very special, taking 2 years to mature, and containing up to 200 seeds.  These seeds remain in the cone until exposed to forest fires, when the heat causes the cones to open up and release seeds.  longleaf pine trees depend on bare mineral soils left by fires to germinate. Without fire, there would be no giant redwoods or longleaf pine trees, among many others.

A carefully controlled burn. ©USFWS

Good Fires Prevent Bad Fires – You have probably heard the term, “Fight fire with fire.”  Good fires – those intentionally set by trained professionals – burn leaf litter and dropped branches from the forest floor and ultimately prevent wildfires that burn out of control.  Fire scientists report that the number one cause of wildfires is the build up of litter and other fuel caused by years and years of fire suppression.

Help us spread the word that controlled fires planned by trained professionals are very beneficial to lands, wildlife, and people.


Support The Nature Conservancy’s prescribed fire program in Kentucky by making a tax-deductible donation. This year, we hope to contribute to a statewide goal of using controlled fire on 25,000 acres. To learn more about our fire program, visit our website.