Fire prevention icon Smokey Bear marks 75th birthday

ESCANABA — Today is Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday. For 75 years, Smokey Bear has warned about fire danger, saying “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

In honor of Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday, there will be a party at the Straits State Park in St. Ignace today and he will attend a Detroit Tigers baseball game, said Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fire Prevention Specialist Paul Rogers.

Locally, the public will get to visit Smokey Bear during the Upper Peninsula State Fair next week in the DNR Pocket Park. There will be a selfie station set up and birthday stickers available.

“We’ll be handing things out during the fair,” said Michigan DNR Escanaba Forest Management Unit Fire Supervisor Jay Osterberg. “Smokey Bear will be at the Pocket Park during the fair when it’s open.”

Seventy-five years ago, firefighters were battling a huge wildfire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. They heard reports of a bear cub walking along the fire line and they hoped its mother would locate it and carry it away. The firefighters found themselves trapped by the fire and laid face down on rocks for over an hour waiting for the fire to pass by them. After the fire passed, they found the bear cub clinging to a charred tree and carefully took it down from the tree. The bear cub had badly burned paws and hind legs. He was brought to Santa Fe, N.M., for treatment. After healing, he went to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.

“In 1944, forest firefighters found a badly burned bear cub that survived, and the idea of Smokey Bear started from that cub,” said Rogers.

Smokey Bear received so many gifts of honey and letters, the post office gave him his own zip code. After his death in 1976, he was buried at Smokey Bear Park in Capitan, N.M.

The message, “Only you can prevent forest fires”, still rings true today.

“Ninety percent of wildfires are caused by humans,” said Rogers. “Especially during the spring. A lot of these fires start from people burning debris. We must always practice safety while burning.”

The state of Michigan requires residents check before burning to see if a burning permit is needed.

“Go to michigan.gov/dnr, and check with local ordinances before you burn outside,” said Rogers. “Always have a five gallon bucket of water next to you or a water hose with you while burning.”

Other precautions include:

Do not build a campfire in hazardous, dry conditions. Choose a spot 15 feet from all items and away from low hanging branches. When a prepared fire pit is not available, clear a 10-foot diameter area, dig a hole about one foot deep, and circle the pit with rocks. Before starting your fire have a shovel, bucket and a water source near by. Keep the fire small and under control. To extinguish the fire allow it to burn completely out if possible, pour water on the embers until a hissing sound stops. If water is not available bury the embers with dirt or sand. If it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.

Maintain machinery so it does not give off sparks. Sparks can come from power equipment and start a wildfire. Mow before 10 a.m., but never when it’s windy or excessively dry.

“Lightning strikes can start a fire,” said Rogers. “We haven’t seen many lately … watch the DNR fire danger signs for conditions.”

Protect your home and help to stop any spreading of wildfires by keeping flammable objects at least 30 feet away from the home. These items include lawn mowers, oil or gas cans, propane tanks, and wood piles. Keep roofs, gutters, decks, and patios clear of debris. Remove flammable material five feet away from your home and replace those items with nonflammable materials. Remove branches that overhang within 10 feet of your home. Lawns should be watered and tree limbs should be 10 feet above the ground to prevent the branches from becoming fuel. Install one eighth inch metal mesh screens over vents and under decks to prevent embers from getting in areas they shouldn’t be.

Sometimes fires are good and help the forests.

Prescribed burns are among methods the state of Michigan use to keep millions of acres healthy. The burns are planned two years in advance and presented at open houses for the public. Citizens can speak with foresters, wildlife biologists and other DNR professionals during a open house. The Escanaba Forest Management Unit will hold an open house Wednesday, Aug. 28, from 3 to 6 p.m. Central at the Stephenson Field Office, located at West 5420 River Road, Stephenson.

A public State Forest Compartment Review meeting will be held Sept. 12 at 9 a.m. in the State Office Building in the second floor conference room, located at 305 Ludington St., Escanaba. This is where the public will hear the foresters present their final decisions on forest management activities. Unit Manager Eric Thompson can be reached at 906-786-2354, ext. 142.

Additional information can be located online at michigan.gov/dnr, smokeybear.com, firewise.org and livingwithfire.info.