For nearly 80 years, it has served as an effective public-service message: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
Actually, Smokey Bear’s catchphrase started in 1947 as “Remember … only YOU can prevent forest fires.” It has been updated in the years since, but the basic directive remains the same: Humans are responsible for a majority of wildfires.
That point is driven home by recent data from the Northwest Interagency Fire Center, which tracks blazes in Washington and Oregon. So far this year, nearly 85 percent of fires in the region have been caused by human action. While lightning occasionally sparks a blaze, fires more often are started by unattended campfires, or the careless use of matches, or the tossing of fireworks, or sparks from engines or equipment.
According to the fire center, there have been 1,295 blazes this year in Washington — 25 of which grew into large fires (defined as more than 100 acres in timber or 300 acres in grasslands). Of those, 1,166 were caused by human activity, including 23 of the large fires.
As of Monday, 16 fires were active in Washington, the largest of which was the Eagle Bluff Fire on the Canadian border outside Oroville. That blaze, which was 90 percent contained, had burned 16,428 acres.
Wildfires are a fact of life in this part of the country. They have grown in frequency and intensity in recent years, and incidents of wildfire smoke covering urban areas have increased. Last year, the Nakia Creek Fire in northeast Clark County burned nearly 2,000 acres, caused evacuations, and shrouded the region in haze for days. Officials determined that it was sparked by pyrotechnics.
“There were so many resources that were out there,” one official said. “We had DNR (Department of Natural Resources), Forest Service, we had people from other states. This was a joint effort. We also had about 40,000 homes on the evacuation list so this wasn’t an isolated incident that just affected a few people.”
The Department of Natural Resources operates the state’s largest firefighting force, putting Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz at the forefront of limiting wildfires. As Franz has said: “The far-reaching effects of wildfire touch us all. Let’s help mitigate those effects here at home with safe and smart decisions.”
Such decisions are especially important near the wildland-urban interface. The DNR offers tips for homeowners near wildland areas, including “Trim vegetation so the fire department can have safe access to your home” and “keep vegetation, including the lawn around the home, low and green.” In Eastern Washington, the department provides free evaluations of a property’s susceptibility to wildfires.
The department also offers tips for keeping a campfire from sparking a blaze. Notably, it emphasizes: “If your fire escapes, you will be responsible for paying for fire suppression personnel and equipment, as required by state law.” For context: The estimated cost of fighting the Newell Road Fire near Goldendale this summer is $9.9 million.
Whether camping in the woods or working on landscape near a wildland area, people should be aware of the weather conditions and fire danger. Even if temperatures are relatively cool, vegetation could be dry from prolonged drought. And lighting fireworks in wilderness areas is never permitted and never a good idea. Last year’s Nakia Creek Fire and the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire are two examples of devastating blazes sparked by pyrotechnics.
Amid all the advice, one message remains clear: Only you can prevent wildfires.