How YOU can prevent wildfires

Only you can prevent forest fires. It's a phrase that almost everyone who grew up in the US knows, uttered by a friendly shirtless brunette in blue jeans and a ranger hat: Smoky bearwhich is celebrating its 80th birthday this year.

It is the longest-running PSA campaign in U.S. history, but even after 80 years, Smokey's targeted prevention message always remains incredibly relevant and important, said Tracy Danicich, vice president and campaign director at Ad Council. That's the national nonprofit organization – in partnership with the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) – that Smokey brought to life in the 1940s to educate and raise awareness about wildfire prevention .

Here are a few often overlooked ways to be fire safe and help prevent human-caused wildfires this season. Make Smokey proud this year.

Facts about wildfires

While wildfires can be devastating, it is important to understand that some types of fire are beneficial to many landscapes. In fact, many areas in the country are implementing this prescribed burns in parks or nature reserves to maintain the health of native plant species, promote biological diversity and curb the disastrous effects of uncontrolled and unplanned forest fires. Prescribed burning also helps eliminate excess downed wood and leaf litter, which not only provides excellent fuel for wildfires but can also make it difficult for healthy forests to thrive.

smoke and flames above the trees
Prescribed fire in Fishlake National Forest, Utah. Image: Forest Service/John Smith

If these prescribed burns are not implemented and a wildfire does occur, there can often be catastrophic loss of entire forests, homes and lives, and it can take decades for the forest to recover.

This was the case in the US in 2023 3,036 individual homes destroyed by wildfiresOver the past five years, an average of 7.7 million hectares have been burned annually, 8 in 10 of which are caused by humans. And while numbers may fluctuate from year to year, climate change leads to longerdrier weather patterns, which in turn open the door to longer and more intense wildfire seasons and more fire-prone wilderness areas.

Fortunately, agencies like the Forest Service and state forest rangers are getting better at predicting when and where fires caused by natural events like lightning will occur, but human-caused events are impossible to predict. Furthermore, “It's surprising how quickly and unintentionally they can happen,” says Kacey KC, Nevada State Forester, Vice Chairman of the NASF Fire Commission and former NASF President. Fortunately, many cases are preventable with an extra dose of caution.

Wildfires are often the result of improperly managed campfires. So when you light a fire at the campsite to roast marshmallows for s'mores, do so carefully. And if there is a burning ban in effect, follow the published rules and do without.

If you are allowed to build a fire, clear an area at least 10 feet in diameter around the fire pit of excess debris such as leaf litter, twigs and wood. Make sure you have enough water on hand to completely drown the fire and any stray embers, then make sure there are no low-hanging branches that could get stuck. Keep flammable objects away from open flames and ensure that the fire is no more than one meter high.

Once lit, never leave the fire unattended. And when you're ready for bed or a day away from camping, Leave No Trace principles dictate that you extinguish the fire thoroughly so that the coals are smooth and cool to the touch. “If it's too hot to touch, it's too hot to leave,” says Danicich, echoing Smokey's sage advice. KC agrees: “Even the tiniest ember can start a fire.”

If you don't have enough water, bury what's left of the embers under a thick layer of soil. Failure to do so can cause a hot coal to easily reignite and reignite the fire or throw up rogue coals, which can travel up to five miles if swept by the wind.

Be careful when burning garbage from the backyard

If you live in a place that allows burning yard waste and natural debris such as leaves and vegetation in the backyard, check whether you need a permit before doing so. If allowed, continue burning on a windless day, preferably not long after a rain shower, when the landscape has not become dry, making it more likely to ignite with your pyre. Choose a spot (preferably on a durable surface such as gravel) away from power lines, tree limbs, vehicles and other equipment where there is at least three times as much space as the stack on all sides, including the top.

Then clear the immediate area of ​​other flammable waste and loose vegetation and make sure there is plenty of water or a garden hose within reach. Water, combined with a shovel to later bury the remaining coals and ash, will ensure that no embers reignite the fire. As with campfires, you should not leave your mess unattended while it is burning.

Grill smart

A lesser-known cause of wildfires: improper disposal of hot coals. If you grill with charcoal briquettes, do not throw them in the trash immediately after cooking. Submerge the briquettes in enough water to completely submerge them, then let them soak for several minutes to ensure they have cooled completely before throwing them away.

Likewise, if you place hot ashes or coals from the fireplace in your outdoor living room, wait until they are completely cool to the touch.

Be careful where you put your butt

Smokers should be careful when smoking outside or disposing of smoked cigarettes, tobacco and joints. Use an ashtray or bare dirt, not dry grass or logs, to extinguish smoking butts and never throw a lit cigarette into the grass or out the car window. Even smoking while hiking or camping can cause a wandering ember to catch the wind, land on dry debris and ignite.

Be careful with equipment and maintenance

There are numerous ways that heavy equipment, machinery and maintenance tools can cause wildfires. Sparks can easily fly from drag chains, hot exhaust pipes can set dry grass on fire, and lawn mower blades hitting rocks can do the same.

So make sure nothing drags metal out of your car while driving; avoid mowing when it is extremely hot, dry and windy; and if you use grinding or welding equipment or other tools that send sparks flying, it's a good idea – and sometimes required – to keep at least 10 feet of distance between you and anything flammable. Also avoid parking a vehicle with a hot exhaust pipe on dry grass or foliage.

Take it to an indoor range

According to KC, target shooting was one of the leading causes of accidental fires in 2023. They are often caused by bullets hitting or ricocheting metal and causing sparks near dry foliage. So when it is dry, take it to an indoor area.

However you choose to enjoy the outdoors as fire season approaches, recreate responsibly and do your part to prevent wildfires. Call it a birthday present for Smokey.

Life skills photo

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