As fire season ignites, Smokey Bear's legacy lingers

Land managers talk about letting fires burn, but politics douse the flames

  • After a 1950 fire in Capitan, New Mexico, Ed Smith treats the burns of the bear cub that would become known as Smokey Bear

    Smokey Bear Historical Park
  • Diane Sylvain
 

CAPITAN, N.M. — You might say the Lincoln National Forest put a face on U.S. fire policy. In 1950, while mopping up after a wildfire in the Capitan Mountains, firefighters found a bear cub clinging to a charred tree with singed paws. After a few cuddly months running around the local ranger station with bandages on his feet, the bear was flown to Washington, D.C., where, for almost three decades, he did time in the National Zoo. Smokey Bear’s story — a poor little cub orphaned by wildfire — added an emotional grace note to the nation’s aggressive fire-suppression policies (HCN, 4/23/01: The Big Blowup).

Now, a half-century later, Smokey is buried under a boulder here in the town of Capitan, pop. 1,443, and another blaze is burning the same forest — the Peppin Fire, which started on May 15 when lightning struck in Peppin Canyon in the Capitans. While there’s been a lot of talk about burying the overzealous firefighting policy that Smokey helped bolster, the Peppin Fire, and the hoopla surrounding it, shows how tricky that will be in a year when most of the West is terrified of wildfire.

From the outset, the Forest Service followed an "indirect" containment strategy on the Peppin Fire. Crews were kept largely away from the advancing flames; they constructed fire lines well away from the fire, and used helicopters and airplanes only to protect life and property.

"I think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to these mountains," says Preston Stone, a fifth-generation rancher. Stone blames the trees that have sprung up since the last fire for drying up perennial springs; the thickets of juniper, piñon and ponderosa pine on the Capitans have prevented water from reaching aquifers.

Van Bateman, incident commander of the Peppin Fire for the Forest Service, cites safety concerns, not ecological ones, for his handling of the fire. "That fire is burning in really tough country," he says. "If we’d have put crews up on that mountain, the only thing we’d have successfully done is hurt somebody."

Still, Bateman allows that his team’s approach to handling the Peppin Fire differs from the aggressive policies of decades past. "Even 20 years ago, they would have thrown everything they had at this fire," Bateman says. "They wouldn’t have taken an indirect strategy as a first choice, I can guarantee you that."

The big blowup

The story might have ended there, but after smoldering for a week, the Peppin Fire exploded, spreading in under 24 hours to cover over 20,000 acres, and destroying over a dozen cabins and outbuildings. The fire suddenly became a political lightning rod, and the debate began to bring back memories of the Smokey Bear era.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson blamed the loss of the cabins on the federal government’s decision to ground its fleet of tanker airplanes. Some local residents criticized the Forest Service for not suppressing the fire before it blew up. "If they’d really wanted to put this fire out, they wouldn’t have let a snag burn for four days," says Colleen Salazar. "I have relatives who worked on the Smokey fire up there 50 years ago. They used what they had — shovels, whatever — and they went up and put that fire out."

And that is likely what land managers will do with fires around the West this summer. Across the region, conditions are ripe for a difficult season, thanks to a multi-year drought, the bark beetle infestation, and forests that are overloaded with trees. In addition, an average snowpack (this year’s silver lining) disappeared during a warmer-than-usual April. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is forecasting a potent fire season for New Mexico, Arizona, Southern California, most of Washington, eastern Oregon, and portions of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.

Many fire managers say the solution and the problem are intertwined — that one of the best ways to reduce hazardous fire conditions is through fire itself. Last year, land managers burned some 3 million acres nationwide using prescribed fire and managed wildfires. In fact, much of the area burned so far by the Peppin Fire was scheduled for a prescribed burn in 2006.

But in a year like this one — volatile both politically and ecologically — the risks of another fire getting away will likely weigh heavily on land managers. "Early-season fires are taking off more quickly and burning more aggressively than normal," says Rick Ochoa, a meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center. "Our teams are on high alert, and we’ll be making an effort to jump on these fires when they’re small."

The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.