Heretics, iconoclasts and boat rockers are abroad in Smokey land. There are people now touting fire, suggesting that perhaps we do not have enough of it, just as others in these troubled times are speaking out for coyotes, marijuana, fagotry and all manner of other formerly nasty and indefensible things.
Not long ago the
Los Angeles Times
ran a front-page interview with a U.S. Forest Service researcher named Bill Beaufait. Beaufait was working in the Service fire lab in Missoula, Mont, and was an advocate of "controlled burning"—touching off fires in the woods for the good of the forest. "We have to get beyond the bear in our approach to forest fires," Beaufait was quoted as saying. "Smokey the Bear is grade school stuff and grade school is where Smokey belongs."
There probably were no more interested readers of the Beaufait story than a forest fire prevention committee convening that very morning in Los Angeles to give advice and encouragement to Smokey. "We read the story," says Mal Hardy, who was present at the session as the Forest Service's full-time manager of Smokey. "We kidded a little about putting a torch in Smokey's hand." However, Hardy, a media-minded man who is a fierce partisan of his bear and meal ticket, gives the impression that the Beaufait comments did not cause belly laughs. The group did not equip Smokey with a torch and on the spot decided not to award Bill Beaufait a Silver Smokey, an honor for which he had been considered. (The bear statuettes are handed out annually to outstanding fire preventers, just as touchdown clubs hand out MVPs.) "Beaufait has been active in research and makes a good impression on the public," Hardy says, "but that sort of sensationalism does not serve a constructive purpose."
Hardy adds that on several occasions, speaking more or less ex cathedra, he himself has had some good words to say about controlled burning. Furthermore, Smokey is not against fire; he is simply for fire prevention, a sophistry that on the surface appears similar to Adolf Hitler explaining that he is not anti-Jewish, just pro-Aryan. Speaking for himself, his staff, several consulting admen and agencies who arrange Smokey's affairs as carefully as they would those of a bar of soap, Hardy says, "We have kicked around the idea of broadening Smokey's message but in this business you do better keeping things simple and direct. If we can assist in publicizing legitimate ecological messages, we will try to help, but Smokey is going to stick to fire prevention, which I still regard as being an extremely valid and useful message."
Growing numbers of scientists and technicians criticize this simplistic approach. The fire freaks tend to be less prominent and media-wise than Smokey and his brain trusters. Nevertheless they are becoming increasingly bold about accusing the good bear and his crowd of promoting silly and false notions. Their argument is that fire is a natural phenomenon in the category of sunlight, heat, cold, precipitation, wind, flood and erosion and as such has a profound influence on the creation and maintenance of terrestrial life and upon the relationships between life forms. Therefore, it is as nonsensical to think of fire as evil and to mount advertising campaigns against it as it would be to create a Blinky the Bat who incessantly squeaked "Beware of light, folks—it blinds."
Among other things, fire is one of the most potent agents of rapid change within our biological system, and change is an absolutely necessary process for the maintenance of that system. The recent and romantic infatuation with ecology has tended to obscure rather than clarify this fundamental fact of natural history.
However necessary and inevitable change may be, individual creatures and species are like hard-core Sierra Clubbers inasmuch as they do not welcome change warmly nor suffer it gladly. The brontosaurus was never hatched who could say, "Ah yes, my time is past. I must depart gracefully or turn myself into a woolly mammoth." All creatures must be forced to accept change, like some incredibly bitter medicine. So fire plays its part.
A grove of oaks, for example, displays like all communities certain greedy, autocratic and change-resistant tendencies. The longer the oaks live, the larger they become and the more they dominate their neighborhood. The foliage shades out lesser species. The oak roots monopolize water and nutrients. The number of animal species dwindles to those that can live in an oak-dominated habitat. In a dry climate the accumulated litter of fallen oak leaves annually grows thicker, making it difficult for young trees to become established. (Among those choked out are oak seedlings. In our system, the overwhelming success of a species—resisting change because of exceptional luck or ability—leads only to suicide.) A good crackling fire will quickly clean out a wood dominated by one type of tree and open the glade to habitation by a far more varied community of plants and animals.
Many biological communities, particularly fragile, short-cycle ones, have come to depend on fire and the rapid changes it effects. Notable among these are the prairies, savannas and woodland glades that man and many other creatures have found particularly attractive. In a natural state, unless regularly burned, grasslands rather quickly disappear, overwhelmed by their own litter and crowded out by scrub and brush. When the grasslands decline, so do many communities of animals, large and small.
A number of species show direct adaptation to fire. There are certain kinds of evergreens that cannot reproduce—whose cones will not open to allow seeds to fall—unless exposed to the intense heat generated by fire. Among these is the Michigan jack pine which, along with a tiny bird, the Kirtland's warbler, played a leading role in one of the odder natural history mysteries of recent times. The warbler has always been rare, and its breeding grounds in the Michigan jack pines of the Huron National Forest were not located until 1908. However, even there the warblers were doing poorly and appeared headed for extinction. Then in the 1950s ornithological researchers discovered that the birds were suffering from lack of fire. For obscure reasons, it seemed they would nest only in groves of 7-to 20-year-old jack pines. Such trees were in short supply since, in approved Smokey fashion, federal foresters had been preventing fire in the area for a quarter of a century. Without fire and 300-degree temperatures, the jack pines did not reproduce and the warblers were soon without the young trees. After considerable soul-searching the Forest Service in the 1960s regularly began burning sections of pine in the Huron forest to accommodate the Kirtland's. The birds now have plenty of nesting sites in the young groves.