Did Smokey Retire Too Early? Human- Caused Ignitions on the Rise

Burnie’s message seems a little abstract- maybe we shouldn’t retire Smokey yet?

Our friends in BC officially retired Smokey. “Stefan Hood of the BC Wildfire Service says they are trying to shift people’s focus away from how to suppress fire toward how to live with it. They are visualizing that change through the retirement of Smokey Bear and the introduction of their new mascot: Ember the Fox.” https://www.coastmountainnews.com/trending-now/smokey-bear-heads-for-retirement-as-bc-wildfire-introduces-ember-the-fox-5674241

The 4th of July seems like a good time to take up the issue of one of the unmodeled-in-all-studies-of-future-fires factors. Yes, the sources of human ignitions and how they change over time. This is what I think we know about human ignitions:

1. Some people do extraordinarily dumb things,

2. Some people set fires on purpose intending to cause wildfires (e.g. Hayman Fire, college prof in California) for a variety of reasons,

3. Some people have campfires or cookfires that get out of control.

4. Some people are doing ordinary things, underestimating fire risk (e.g. dragging trailer chains).

5. Some people have equipment that sparks when it is working incorrectly (e.g. power companies).

6. Some people have prescribed fires, managed fires, or other burning operations that get out of control.

Perhaps there are other that we could add to the list. That’s an extremely broad range of behaviors.

Now if we think about how to change human behavior, we usually think of education (e.g. Smokey Bear), laws and enforcement thereof, and litigation against the deep-pocketed (power companies or timber companies, individuals not so much).

That’s an extremely broad range of behaviors. If we knew the proportion of each group, we could potentially target education programs to them. But it seems like it’s hard to get that data, beyond “human-caused.”

I didn’t verify his numbers, but the Hotshot Wakeup wrote a post that claimed:
92% Of All Wildfires This Year Have Been Human Caused. Those Fires Account For 98% Of All Acres Burned.

Smokey in 1944, still 90 percent 80 years later…


He also had a fun rant on his podcast a piece on this Outdoors magazine article that said “let’s shut down campfires entirely” due to ..climate change. Which sounds a bit like the arguments against managed fires (interesting because the people against managed fires tend to otherwise have different views than these folks). When I was hunting for the link to the Outdoor article, I discovered that they had published an opinion piece with almost exactly the same idea by a different author in 2021; the tie-in for that one was to the IPCC report (I’m not making this up).

Last week, I happened to be at a subdivision in the Sacramento area, nowhere near the WUI. We got a text that there was a fire behind the houses on the next street, and police came around looking for the people whom they thought had started it. There are many homeless peoples’ tents in the dried grass around the area; at some point we’d know the people who started it and why-   if it was easy to find the results of investigations (which as far as I can tell, is not easy).   At least for California, maybe there’s a table or spreadsheet that’s updated regularly? A few miles away, a large fire close to another subdivision had been started by a homeless person’s fire, so people are on the alert, and the fire departments in the area seem to be very much on the ball.

There is some discussion that the cause of the Darlene 3 Fire in Central Oregon was a long-term camping group.  In the comments on TwitX, one person spoke about the outreach that goes on in their community to these groups, in terms of fire prevention.  It seems to me that you can sympathize with both groups, the homeless and the local homeowners.  Starting a fire unintentionally is good for no one, nor are fines (for people with money), nor prison terms. But the world has changed, and is changing, and now substantially more homeless people camp and have fires, therefore, due to non-climate-related changes, we can expect more fires. An interventions would be to figure out if the homeless folks are using the fires for warmth (I’m thinking not, at least in Sacramento, as it was in the 100s during the day.  If they were using them for cooking, perhaps supplying them with solar or propane stoves?

Human-caused wildfire are different than lightning fires.  Often lightning occurs with rain.   Human causes can occur at the hottest, driest and windiest (when air resources can’t fly), time of the year, and throughout the year.  Let’s face it, there are a lot more humans around than there used to be.  Check out the trail of campers heading to the woods for next weekend, and think about the numbers 30 years ago. Certainly changes in climate can be correlated with increasing problematic wildfires, but so could increases in population, in population in the woods, and so on.  When we were worried about not enough people enjoying the outdoors (the Nature Deficit, remember that?), we wanted more people to get into the wildlands.   After Covid, we have.. too many?  And if more people mean more fires, then resources will be stretched.. leading to less control, possibly leading to more problematic fires.  Maybe “if you set them, they are bad” was not an untrue message all along. Sometimes nuance gets in the way of clarity.

I’m also pointing out what seems like a serious data deficit.  Somehow we have  wildfire-climate models that predict acreage of wildfires in 2100, yet we don’t have easily accessible data on human ignitions.  At least not to the level of detail that we would need to try, or compare, different policy interventions to reduce ignitions on meaningful scales.  It’s probably too simple to say “there’s lots of money to study climate and lots of satellite data so we tend to see the world through that lens.”  And yet, what are we not seeing when we look through that lens?

For today and this weekend, though, let’s be careful, observe restrictions, and be watchful for those who don’t.



19 thoughts on “Did Smokey Retire Too Early? Human- Caused Ignitions on the Rise”

  1. I mentioned about my grandpa being appointed a fire warden 1929, but I didn’t mention the language. Its overtone was already villainizing the Axis Powers, and wildfires were likened to foreign operatives setting fires in the national forests – words to that effect.

    What most folks forget, or never really knew, was the absolute fear our government had to lose the resources afforded by national forests. There weren’t many “men” readily available for fire suppression. Then, it got worse; as the ramp up to, and World War 2 took what few men available to suppress fires and sent them overseas. The fires of 1910 were still on everyone’s minds, as well as the summer of 1924 being known as “the summer of endless fires”.

    Smokey came about in 1944, so he had quite a mess to oversee, and surely at that time, able bodied men, because of the War, were in short supply.

    Ranger Districts usually had 3-4 employees, including the Ranger. So for those who say Smokey was a mistake, he surely was not. The context of time and tragedy would probably say he came too late!

    It’s very interesting to go back and read the old Ranger field books, or better yet, listen to Char Miller tell the story!

    • Thanks Jim: This is really good insight. I would also add that the 1933 Tillamook Fire was the first catastrophic-scale wildfire to get worldwide media attention and extensive eye witness, photo, and film documentation. Then the 1939 Tillamook Fire, Keep Oregon Green (from the “fern burners” — using traditional burning practices to maintain native Indian prairies for modern livestock grazing purposes), and then Smokey. You had to be old enough for CCCs or the military to remember the 1924 Fires, and you definitely have the national concern at that time exactly right.

      • 🤣. Not that old Bob, just lots of family overlap from 1929 to 2017. Being a forester, I have of late, really grabbed ahold of learning as much history as I can about the early days/years of the FS. When Wallow (Arizona, 2011) went over a half million acres, I was told I just joined a fairly exclusive club, as Agency Administrator on a mega fire! There were several AA’s rotated in and out but I got to start it and end it. Not really something to be proud of, but we got’er done! Two escaped campfires joined to become this beast!

  2. Given the statistics that show over 3/4 of Forest fires are human caused, and most of them occur close to roads, I believe that USFS needs to be much more committed to simply closing roads when conditions are trending towards high. The cost/benefit ratio could be astronomical.

    • It would be interesting to hear about how agency officials decide to close areas due to fire risk. Are there criteria that must be applied? Are there any consequences for failing to implement closures when they should? This seems similar to the power companies shutting off power, where they might be negligent if they don’t, but is there any recourse against the (lack of) government closure decisions? It seems unlikely under the Tort Claims Act, but I’ll admit my ignorance.

      • I’ll tell ya what I would do as a Forest Sup (where the closure originates) I would visit with my fire leadership and go off their recommendations! Always!

        I saw, one time, when the Deputy (me) had acted on that recommendation from fire but was overridden by the Sup. I had already started the press releases and notifications, and had to withdraw the notices.

        538,049 incinerated acres later, the forest sup retired.

      • I think it’s one of those things that some of us tend to think local people know most and can be trusted to make the decisions. “When they should” is a judgment call- who’s going to make it?

        • It is a delegation of authority from the RF as to who can sign Orders. At one time, it was individually delegated (by that persons name); now it is delegated to/by position. Or at least it was in 2017….

          There are individual training programs, such as “Fire for line”, “law enforcement for line”, “recreation for Line”, etc. that allow those boxes to be checked for Line Officers authority.

      • I was making a distinction between a situation of high fire risk (Glenn: “when conditions are trending towards high”) and closures related to an existing fire. Does that make sense or change any of these replies?

        • That’s a good point, Jon. I think people may well be less questioning of closures related to an existing fire. But I could be wrong. Mike, JZ and others would have experience.

        • I’m not sure I’m understanding your question, Jon. Stage 3 fire restrictions involves closing all or parts of a forest. Fire restrictions are based on a variety of factors, including fuel moisture, weather, fire activity levels, resources available and even human behavior. Ultimately, it is the forest sup’s call and that’s a good question about liability. What if all the indicators are at Stage 3 levels but the forest sup doesn’t close the forest or parts of the forest and a fire occurs that destroys infrastructure and possibly includes fatalities? Is the forest sup liable?

          If I remember correctly, and I may not, in 2002, the driest year on record in the Upper Rio Grande, the forest implemented a kind of hybrid Stage 2-3 restriction; camping was prohibited on the forest except in designated campgrounds.

          • Some of the responses seemed to be referring to conditions associated with an ongoing fire, and my question (which was about liability) was about fire risk in the absence of a fire.

    • Glenn, why roads and not the forest entirely? At least if a fire starts along a road, there’s greater access to fight it.

      • When an entire forest is closed it has a big impact on the local service economy, but so does a big fire. I remember a year (2018?) where both the Santa Fe and Carson NFs closed due to fire danger. They tried to stay open with fire restrictions, but people kept violating the restrictions so they shut the forests down. This caused a larger than usual influx of visitors to the Rio Grande NF that summer. The Rio Grande NF was hesitant to close because the West Fork Complex (2013) resulted in six businesses going belly up in Creede, so there was a lot of pressure to gamble and stay open. But there is a difference in the economic impact between closing a national forest where people can still visit the bedroom communities and totally closing off the communities due to a large fire. It’s a tough call.

        • Mike, not sure I have the geography clear here, can the Forest close off a community as opposed to the actual NF acres?

          • Not that I am aware of, but the State Patrol can close off access due to a wildfire. Creede is a mountain town and has one highway that passes through the town. At one point the southern access, which is the most travelled was shut down. But, the bigger issue was the thick smoke in town combined with the closure of much of the Forest that surrounds Creede due to both the West Fork and Papoose Fires (both part of the complex). There was also the fear factor – legitimate or not – of what the fires might do.

          • Sharon, I just reread my first post and understand your confusion. It wasn’t a hard closure on Creede in 2013 (except for a week), it was a de facto closure due to the fire and smoke. People stayed away.

          • Mike has it right on;, I should have stated varying “degrees” of closure; first off are the fire stages (I, II, and III’s), then area closures. We understand the impacts on communities and businesses. We had three towns and three communities in Wallow that probably affected 10 -12,000 folks. We closed the Forest, parts of it anyway, and the Sheriff and DPS (Arizona Dept. of Public Safety) closed the highways and done the evacuations.

            We had tried to close off just through fire restrictions but the violations caused us to go to the extremes. I had one violation from an individual who had been evacuated during Rodeo-Chedeski, violate the fire order on the “Apache” side of the A-S!

            Many letters, both for and against, many quite ugly, but we were used to that, and own it; It really is all about safety, and reduction of risks. Not only did we have Wallow ongoing, but had two other large fires on the “Sitgreaves” side of the A-S, during Wallows run.


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