Is Smokey Dead?
More than a few pickup trucks in Missoula, Montana wear a Forest Service-issue bumper sticker in yellow and black.
Smokey Bear has been the Forest Service's fire prevention mascot for over 50 years.

"Prevent wildfires" admonishes Smokey Bear's stern countenance. Sounds like a good nonpartisan cause. Everyone from lumberjacks to tree-huggers hates to see blackened stumps where lofty trunks once stood. "Smokey is dead -- prescribe wildfires" is the version affixed to the door of Ron Wakimoto's office in the University of Montana's School of Forestry. Like a Nietzsche of the woods, Wakimoto wants to dethrone the beloved bear and reverse one of the most successful PR campaigns in American history. He's not alone, either.

Smokey's approval ratings are so high today that it's probably hard to imagine a time when anybody anywhere thought a wildland fire was a good idea. Fire was the enemy of those entrusted with protecting the forest from going to waste until it could be harvested properly: A century ago the first professional foresters regularly complained that large forest fires burned more acreage in a flash than ever fell to the ax and saw.

Measured Doses

Today fire ecologists such as Ron Wakimoto and, yes, the same folks who brought you Smokey Bear have come to believe that fire is as vital to the health of a forest as water. To them, a hundred years of battling to "put 'em out" means that now more acres will burn in uncontrollable blazes or die of disease than if fire is reintroduced to the landscape in measured doses and with carefully crafted goals. Wakimoto has even gone so far as to testify before Congress that crown fires -- the tree-consuming infernos that make the news with their spectacular flames -- should be set on purpose in wilderness areas to help restore a healthier patchwork of trees of different ages. This is strong medicine, when even small prescribed burns provoke angry letters to the editor decrying the ugliness of the aftermath.

A fire crew digs line--the main defense against a spreading fire.

Join Us on the Front Lines

These field notebook entries bring you the story behind the all-new image makeover for fire. You won't think of fire the same way again.