Re: “Commentary: Smokey the Bear steered us wrong” (Sept. 27, Page D1):

The Smokey Bear program began more than 75 years ago as a national campaign to promote wildland fire safety. It is not likely that anyone in the fire service then, or now, believes that we can prevent every wildfire. The slogan, which began in 1947, says, “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” is a catchphrase to remind people to do the right thing. If we are all personally responsible, then certainly we will reduce the number of wildfires. Personal responsibility will not prevent all wildfires, but over the past 75 years, it has stopped an unfathomable number of wildfires across the country. There is no way to know how many lives and how many acres of forest, homes and businesses have been saved by the Smokey program. While it is true that we cannot prevent all wildfires, we still believe that an ounce of prevention goes a long way toward the pound of cure.

There are many wildfires and many causes in Maine – 2020 is a record-breaking year, and our season is not over yet – and the Maine Forest Service tracks wildfires in 12 categories. Lightning, as the only truly natural cause, makes up for about 4 percent of the wildfires so far in 2020. In contrast, human-caused wildfires make up the balance. For example, campfires, debris burning, equipment use and smoking account for about 63 percent of the wildfires this year. If sensible or statutorily required prevention practices had been followed, it is reasonable to believe many of these wildfires could have been prevented. Indeed, we cannot prevent every source of ignition, all the time. However, the data illustrates that people cause wildfires, and sensible wildfire prevention practices can reduce wildfire costs and physical loss. Data also demonstrate that the number of wildfires has risen steadily in the last few decades. Thus, we must be vigilant in preventing wildfire losses.

In recent years, likely because of climate change, Maine experienced both ends of the weather spectrum. We live in extended rainy periods and extended drought, and we’ve experienced both in 2020. Wildfires have surpassed any other year in the past two decades. We need to prepare, mitigate and educate. While fire-free forests may be neither realistic nor necessarily healthy, neither is sitting on our hands and abandoning prevention – here in Maine or nationally. Preparation, mitigation and education are all critical components of a robust wildfire prevention program.

The Maine Forest Service has several individual programs to accomplish this end:

Forest Rangers visit classrooms to instill fire safety through education with children.

• Rangers work with communities to prepare Community Wildfire Protection Plans to manage better and survive wildfire incidents.

• Communities and homeowners are supported with risk mitigation through the MFS Defensible Space Chipper program.

• MFS also supports several FireWise USA communities. Rangers erect fire safety signs, inspect campsites, interact with people across the state and actively enforce fire safety laws, all as part of comprehensive wildfire education and prevention.

• We work with utility companies and railroads to have mitigation practices in place, some of which are statutorily required and enforced by MFS Rangers.

• We also have extensive mapping, GPS and GIS capabilities.

• MFS has prepared for structural changes and improvements.

Wildfires are an inevitable part of our lives across the U.S. The MFS has and will take necessary steps to protect the landowners and Maine people. We agree that a robust and permanent, professional wildfire management organization is vital to continue protecting Maine.

Maine is unique as the most forested state in the country, and it is mostly privately owned. Ownership makes it more difficult to undertake large-scale prescribed fire projects. However, the MFS manages controlled burns every year to mitigate hazards and provide live-fire training for firefighters across the state. Again, Maine’s forests are unique and well managed by forest professionals, making them more resilient.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding since we have surpassed the two-decade annual number of fires this year and have kept the average acreage per fire very low. There is no way to know how many more fires would have happened if we didn’t manage a wildfire prevention program.


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