Wild­fires hap­pen here, too

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake jamiedrake­out­doors@out­look.com

Imag­ine driv­ing north on Route 4 and ob­serv­ing dark clouds of bil­low­ing smoke and a red­dish glow smol­der­ing on the hori­zon.

The sky ahead grad­u­ally takes on a hazy, dark pur­ple hue and the smell of smoke as­saults your nos­trils. As you get closer, near-dark­ness en­velops your car and the flick­ers of fire in the dis­tance come into fo­cus. Now you can see flames reach much higher into the sky than you’d been ex­pect­ing.

When you stop at a traf­fic light, large flecks of ash pre­cip­i­tate from the sky and coat the hood of your car with a light layer of omi­nous-look­ing ash, a layer that is in stark con­trast to how a cheer­ful coat­ing of snow would look.

Al­though this sce­nario sounds im­pos­si­ble here in South­ern Mary­land, if you imag­ined what it would be like to drive to­ward rag­ing for­est fires, you might have felt a slight twinge of anx­i­ety.

Those are ex­actly the

cir­cum­stances my daugh­ter and hus­band ex­pe­ri­enced as they drove down the coast of Cal­i­for­nia ear­lier last month, and as I un­der­stand things, that par­tic­u­lar part of their jour­ney did cause a bit of anx­i­ety for them both. While that sce­nario will prob­a­bly never hap­pen here, our re­gion is not en­tirely im­mune to the dan­ger of for­est fires.

You might be sur­prised to find out that the Mar yland For­est Ser­vice re­sponds to an av­er­age of 325 wild­fires each year, while lo­cal fire de­part­ments get over 5,000 calls for wild­fire in­ci­dents an­nu­ally. There aren’t many re­ports of wild­fires in Mary­land in the sum­mer­time be­cause our wild­fire sea­son peaks in the spring

and the fall, when the dry air and fallen leaves on the for­est floor make for an es­pe­cially com­bustible com­bi­na­tion.

You are prob­a­bly not sur­prised to read that al­most all wild­fires in Mary­land are started by hu­mans.

Ar­son is a lead­ing cause of wild­fires, se­cond only to im­proper out­door burn­ing. Other causes in­clude chil­dren play­ing with fire, smok­ing, camp­fires, downed power lines, dis­carded ashes, and fire­works. And a small per­cent­age — just 4 per­cent — are caused by the only nat­u­ral source of wild­fires, light­ning.

Out west

That’s not true of other places out west, though, where storms can ig­nite nu­mer­ous wild­fires with light­ning strikes.

Just last month, light­ning from storms ig­nited a to­tal of 75 small fires in Modoc and Kal­math na­tional forests and dozens of oth­ers in Six-Rivers and Shasta-Trin­ity na­tional forests in Cal­i­for­nia in just a 24hour pe­riod. While light­ning causes a very small per­cent­age of wild­fires in our neck of the woods, it’s a dif­fer­ent story in Cal­i­for­nia and in other states out west.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween East Coast and West Coast comes down to mois­ture. It’s a

whole lot drier out west than it is here, and for that rea­son wild­fires are a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence there.

Driv­ing down a Cal­i­for­nia high­way with smoke dark­en­ing the sky and ash rain­ing down will make an East Coast res­i­dent ques­tion his de­ci­sion mak­ing skills that have brought him this close to a wild­fire. Lo­cal Cal­i­for­nia drivers don’t hardly pay at­ten­tion. They are used to it. Dur­ing a rain­storm, though, those same Cal­i­for­ni­ans might quake in their flip-flops at the thought of hav­ing to drive a crowded free­way in a rain­storm.

Out west, lo­cal govern­ments are very aware of wild­fire risks, and the staff is trained and re­sources al­lo­cated based on sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis. How­ever, some­times Mother Na­ture throws a

curve­ball and they might not be pre­pared for quite all she has in store. When this hap­pens, other states pitch in to help con­trol the fire, with team mem­bers who are trained to help pro­tect homes and busi­nesses and keep in­fra­struc­ture safe from fire dam­age.

Just re­cently, some of Mary­land’s finest fire­fight­ers were called into ser­vice to as­sist in com­bat­ting a wild­fire in the Kla­math Na­tional For­est. This fire be­gan with a light­ning strike deep in the Mar­ble Moun­tain Wilder­ness and has been con­tin­u­ously burn­ing through the for­est per­form­ing its nat­u­ral func­tion — clean­ing up downed trees and branches on the for­est floor.

This crew in­cluded per­son­nel from the Mary­land For­est Ser­vice, Mary­land Park Ser­vice, Wildlife and Her­itage Ser­vice and a cadre of vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers. This 20-per­son wild­land

crew is the se­cond dis­patched from Mary­land so far this year. On July 9, the first 20-per­son crew was mo­bi­lized to com­bat fires in Colorado and South Dakota.

A trip out west is no va­ca­tion for th­ese folks from the Old Line State. Crews stay on about two weeks, work­ing 12-hour shifts and then com­ing back to prim­i­tive camps to catch a few winks in a sleep­ing bag be­fore re­turn­ing to the line for their next shift of fire­fight­ing.

Of­ten, the fires they are man­ag­ing are re­mote enough, and their camps as well, that sup­plies are brought in by pack mule. But if con­di­tions get too dan­ger­ous, he­li­copters can be called in for backup.

Smokey Bear turn­ing 73

On Aug. 9, Smokey Bear will be cel­e­brat­ing his 73rd an­niver­sary as the poster boy for the

For­est Ser­vice’s ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign aimed at en­list­ing Amer­i­cans to use fire re­spon­si­bly and to be vig­i­lant pro­tec­tors of our forests.

His catch­phrase has var­ied a bit over the years, but his mes­sage has re­mained con­stant. Since 2001, he’s been telling us “Only YOU can pre­vent wild­fires.”

Smokey Bear wasn’t top choice for the cam­paign’s mas­cot. When Walt Dis­ney had a ma­jor hit on his hands with the an­i­mated “Bambi” movie around the time the cam­paign was look­ing for an an­i­mal mas­cot, they hit pay­dirt.

Dis­ney gave the cam­paign per­mis­sion to use the movie’s wood­land an­i­mals on posters, which proved very pop­u­lar with Amer­i­cans and suc­cess­fully ral­lied the pub­lic be­hind the cause. But, alas, the li­cens­ing deal was only good for one year, so a new sym­bol was needed fast.

Smokey got his big

break in Oc­to­ber 1944 when the first post de­pict­ing his image was de­liv­ered to the For­est Ser­vice by artist Arthur Staehle. His kind and friendly face was de­picted on posters and signs all across Amer­ica.

When I was a lit­tle kid, Smokey Bear was a reg­u­lar dur­ing the com­mer­cial breaks be­tween car­toons on Satur­day morn­ing. His mes­sage was sim­ple, “Re­mem­ber … only YOU can pre­vent for­est fires.”

Most kids today could eas­ily name a square yel­low sponge that lives in a pineap­ple un­der the sea or a skinny wizard with wire-framed glasses and an oddly shaped scar on his fore­head. But I won­der how many of those kids would rec­og­nize Smokey Bear?

I see his friendly face a few times each year, at lo­cal parks and some­times stand­ing along­side Route 5 an­nounc­ing the day’s risk of fire. But I sure would like to see him in more places, so that the next gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren will have the op­por­tu­nity to learn fire safety from an ex­pert bear whose been hon­ing his lessons over the last 73 years.

The next time you hear about wild­fires rag­ing out west, don’t just dis­miss them as some­thing go­ing on else­where that bears no sig­nif­i­cance to your life.

Peo­ple from our state — fire­fight­ers, per­son­nel and vol­un­teers — are of­ten on the ground lend­ing a hand to keep fires con­tained and cit­i­zens and their prop­erty safe. And know that you can make a dif­fer­ence here in South­ern Mary­land, too, by fol­low­ing fire­wise pro­to­col and pass­ing along that knowl­edge to your kids and grand­chil­dren, es­pe­cially if they haven’t been in­tro­duced to Smokey Bear yet.

It is cer­tainly true that we are the ones who have to make the dif­fer­ence.

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