August 7th, 2014 by

By Carrie Brooks, Communications Intern

This Saturday, Smokey Bear will take a short break from helping prevent forest fires and turn his attention to the flames atop 70 candles. Fortunately, there is no disaster here: these lit candles will adorn the American icon’s birthday cake!

Smokey was brought into being by the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council as a vehicle to educate Americans on preventing forest fires. The bear has withstood the test of time. His simple-but-powerful slogan is familiar to most every generation: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

However, Smokey Bear is not only an icon — he is an advocate. His message of wildfire prevention is still relevant; humans cause 90 percent of wildfires. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that humans in the United States are responsible for an annual average of 62,631 fires that burn more than 2.5 million acres every year.

Human-caused wildfires are destructive, yet, this negative stereotype is not always accurate. In many circumstances, fire benefits forests.

Jami Westerhold poses with Smokey Bear at a volunteer event in summer 2014.

Jami Westerhold, Senior Director of Forest Restoration Programs, met Smokey Bear at an American Forests volunteer event in the Greater Yellowstone Area this summer.

Jami Westerhold, American Forests’ Senior Director of Forest Restoration, says low-intensity wildfires create openings, increasing sun exposure and water supply, which encourages plant growth and regeneration. Fires leave ash that can serve as a fertilizer and also help protect trees in the vicinity from certain threats.

“Fire can also help eliminate pests and diseases that damage forests and creates diversity in plant ages — or successional stages,” she said. “This develops a healthier forest ecosystem and benefits wildlife.”

However, high-intensity fires are not among these circumstances. Jami notes that, in these situations, “seed sources and soil nutrients are severely impacted, preventing natural regeneration.” This is where American Forests’ involvement begins.

While Smokey Bear works to prevent wildfires, American Forests is dedicated to reforesting areas affected by high-impact wildfires. With the cooperation of our partners in the field, the organization endeavors to reforest the grounds with native trees.

Reforestation in these areas revitalizes ecosystems and improves forest and fire management. In turn, these actions limit damage from and can prevent altogether future fires — something that would please Smokey Bear!