When I was a kid, there was a Smoky the Bear PSA on TV showing an animated forest fire. Smoky — in his characteristic deep bearlike voice — shouted, “Fire! Fire! Run for your lives!” And all the little forest animals went dashing through the woods attempting to beat the flames.
Fire was dangerous in those days half a century ago, and it’s dangerous now. At least most of the time it is. But as you can see from the photo above taken in the Chattahoochee National Forest, experts who know what they are doing can start and control fires to burn underbrush, sticks, logs and stumps in an effort to reduce fuel and mitigate the severity of future unplanned fires in the risky fire season months. At the same time, the residue of fire leaves healthy minerals behind to nourish plants that will emerge from the forest floor in early spring.
In the 80s I was on a family vacation in Yellowstone Park when the uncontrolled forest fires ravaged the western woods. Fire had been suppressed for so long in the park that fuel had piled up. The result was utter conflagration. We watched from Yellowstone Lake as trees on the other side literally exploded in a cloud of sparks and smoke.
I returned to Yellowstone a few years ago to backpack into the wilderness. Even three decades later, there were still signs of the fire I had witnessed long before. Yellowstone is a patient place, and it will recover. But I am pleased to see that we now do a better job of taking care of our forests so that hiking, camping and backpacking remain safe and enjoyable ways to visit the woods.