Wildfires happen here, too
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.
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.