For far too long, the outdoors have been unsafe for people from underrepresented communities, a space where women face harassment while hiking, where people of color encounter racism while road-tripping, where disabled people are gawked at as they merely try to enjoy the pleasures of nature. But we all have the right to immerse ourselves in the outdoors, and the industry is shifting to accommodate people who want to enjoy the vast, open spaces from which they’ve long been tacitly excluded.
“The New Outdoors” is a weeklong series about adventurers from underrepresented communities who are grabbing their compasses, ice axes, dog sleds, and Instagram-ready vans and staking a rightful claim to the freedom of the outdoors.
Smokey Bear began his long and storied life as a collaboration between the United States Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council. He was birthed 34 years after the “Big Blowup,” a gigantic fire that in 1910 ravaged several western states, killed nearly 90 people, and burned 3 million acres. Smokey, in his first paper advertisement, appears as a burly bear with shiny brown fur, wearing a wide-brim hat that identified him as a forest ranger and long rolled-hem jeans held up by a thin leather belt. He pours a bucket of water on a small campfire. The caption reads: “Smokey says—care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!” In the years that followed, Smokey, along with his motto, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” would become omnipresent.
In 2000, when I was 19 years old, I began working for a contract company as a wildland firefighter based in Oregon. I was unknowingly signing on for a catastrophic fire season, one that would catalyze the formation of more than 10 new hotshot crews composed of elite wildland firefighters and numerous additional wildland firefighting resources. I also didn’t know that in less than two years I’d be working as a hotshot myself, starting as the only woman on my well-established California crew. Sometimes I think back to that first image of Smokey and imagine what he might have looked like if things had been different: wearing a smile instead of a stern look, or showcasing Indigenous American burning practices instead of pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. The truth behind the image is that Smokey wouldn’t need that bucket of water if the Indigenous land management practices that had been developed over thousands of years hadn’t been stifled. America’s favorite fire-safety bear was given life when we stopped tending the land, making it vulnerable to fire in a way it had never been before.
During my time as a firefighter a story went around about someone who got what we called “White bite”: chafing at the front of the ankle caused by White fire boots. We all had White bite—I still have the scars to prove it—but his got infected. Instead of telling someone about his excruciating pain, he let it fester, and got gangrene. I have hundreds of examples like this from my time as a wildland firefighter: I worked on one crew where we couldn’t have pillows or use the air conditioning in our trucks because it would apparently make us weak. Temper tantrums on fires were a common occurrence. We weren’t allowed to voice our emotions productively and they’d eventually boil over into anger. Toughness was always the goal, and anger was one of the only acceptable emotions.
Four years before Smokey was dreamt up, the Forest Service had implemented a rule that all forest and brush fires were to be aggressively attacked and extinguished by 10am on the morning following their ignition. From then on, the idea that wildfires were only dangerous and always bad was disseminated throughout the United States, and the Forest Service had its poster boy. Fire is a powerful element, and like the other powerful elements in the New World, such as bears, wolves, and rivers, the men who founded the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 wanted to control it. In many areas where national forests were established (beginning in 1891), Indigenous Americans had been tending the land for thousands of years.
Fire was a natural and seamless part of this process: Most land was burned every autumn in order to keep the forest floor healthy and encourage the growth of plants used for food and basketry. Fire was also necessary to keep meadows and open spaces thriving while encouraging biodiversity and water retention. But by the time the Forest Service was established, officials were too busy exploiting the rights of Indigenous people (some were even enslaved in California) to ask about how to care for the land. Ironically, it was Teddy Roosevelt and his conservationist allies who made the official decision to prevent forest fires at all costs. After only a year or two of sweeping fire suppression, which eschewed the use of prescribed fire, some conservationists questioned this decision and rightly argued the importance of fire in the natural ecosystem, but a precedent was set.
Often, when fires became uncontrollable, government agencies react quickly, dousing them as fast as possible to prevent casualties to homes. This is necessary, but after bad fire seasons there isn’t much contemplation about how to move forward, except a continual increase in budget. Although prescribed fire is beginning to again be acknowledged as important, Smokey’s message hasn’t changed. Smokey is a symbol of the failure of our government to embrace progressive ideals and a more inclusive and open-minded ecological stance which would lead to more thoughtfully managed natural spaces—specifically, natural spaces where houses are situated and communities reside. While neighborhood associations managed lawns and landscaping, the surrounding forests and brushlands continued to be neglected in the name of suppression and safety.
The consequences of this failure came viscerally to the fore over the last two years, especially in California. In 2017, fires raged through wine country; in 2018, the Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise. I drove through the town about two months ago—though it was burned so thoroughly the word “town” barely describes it. Some sparse stands of trees remain there, but most have been cut down and harvested for the timber industry, which often profits on wildfire harvests with its process of “salvaging.” Green bushes and wildflowers had popped up, gifts from an extra-rainy winter. Billboards encouraging community members to claim their insurance dotted the roadsides.
Miniature bulldozers scooped debris into piles to be disposed of, piles comprising the things we humans hold dear: family photos, trinkets, dressers and clothes and jewelry and shoes and cribs, all burned so hot they’d disintegrated to ash or become unrecognizable solid chunks of matter. One road seemed empty but for a succession of chimney stacks, each representing a family who is now homeless, living with other family or friends or in the small trailers that sit in the driveways of many burned and half-burned houses. The Camp Fire’s ignition point was on the edge of the Plumas National Forest in the California Sierras, not far from where I worked as a firefighter. Many of these forests, including the Plumas, were once burned nearly every year by Indigenous Americans, but have, since the inception of the Forest Service, been aggressively “protected” from fire. Clearly, the outcomes of this so-called protection were catastrophic, but they weren’t unpredictable.
People have called the tragedy in Paradise “unprecedented,” but it wasn’t. Wildfires have burned through other U.S. towns, although rarely so thoroughly. Though Pacific Gas & Electric’s lines were determined to be the fire’s official cause, the destruction of Paradise was a clear result of U.S. forest-management policies implemented in the early 20th century, and the inability of government officials to look directly at the accumulation of debris and trees in unburned forests, which inevitably led to disaster. Paradise only had two main roads leading out of town, which is why there were rows of cars on the road when the fire burned over the town. Cars filled with people. Eighty-five people died in the Camp Fire, which was the deadliest fire in a century.
Many agencies working toward the reintroduction of prescribed fire are slowly gaining momentum. When I worked for the Forest Service we burned occasionally, but the agency didn’t possess the overarching funding or focus needed for tangible, wide-reaching change. Groups like The Nature Conservancy have been implementing prescribed fire for decades, and has collaborated with smaller factions of the Forest Service. The Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils, whose board consists of several Forest Service employees, is also a dominant voice in favor of prescribed burning. Most significantly, in 2019 the Karuk tribe of Northern California introduced a climate adaptation plan that beautifully outlines their detailed ideas of how to restore fire and other Indigenous practices to land in desperate need of mindful and intelligent care.
In my time as a Forest Service employee I experienced its glacial movement regarding any sort of tangible, progressive change. For any minor incident that occurs, there are hours, days, and even months of paperwork to fill out and hoops to jump through. If you’re a minority and/or a woman, your experience may be wrought with double standards. Although the agency has guidelines regarding sexual harassment that appear strict, it’s all a matter of culture. There are pages on Facebook dedicated to Forest Service workers who have been mangled in the bureaucratic machinery, especially women and minorities fighting to stand on equal ground with white men, who have been the voice and majority since the USFS was conceived. In these groups, the women ask for better reporting avenues, more supportive human resource departments, and stricter repercussions for abusers, who often only get a slap on the wrist or, at worst, a forced retirement (with benefits).
We need to approach fire differently, and listen to the softer voices of scientists, Indigenous Americans, and nonprofit organizations who have much more to offer than the next salvage timber harvest.
Those who are discriminated against or abused are often transferred, and many are silently blacklisted and endure sometimes intolerable blowback because they’ve stood up for themselves. It’s not only the Forest Service, but the Park Service and Bureau of Land Management, too. There needs to be a major shift in the macho, dominating culture of the Forest Service for fundamental change to occur. The Karuk climate adaptation plan suggests that managing Forest Service land can be collaborative, and common goals can be agreed upon. To do this, the small culture shifts and collaborations which have been occurring for some time within the agency would need to be adopted and implemented throughout.
Smokey Bear is one of the most recognized representatives of the Forest Service—what if his campaign could help the agency find new direction? What if Smokey got soft? Soft is a loaded word, sometimes an insult. No wildland firefighter wants to be soft, right? But softness is underrated. Unlike impermeability, softness is malleable, porous. Softness seeks new ideas. Softness goes with the flow. Just like fire. I imagine a future campaign for Smokey and the Forest Service, one where they promote the importance of prescribed fire in nearly all ecosystems. “Fire is important because it helps regenerate ecosystems and supports native species,” Smokey could say, sharing this insight with millions of children who will be allowed thoughtfulness rather than given one narrow ideal of Preventing Forest Fires. Smokey could go to schools, specifically those situated in the Wildland Urban Interface, and share the virtues of fuel breaks, which some towns, like Bend, Oregon, have already implemented as premeditated wildfire defense.
He could appear in commercials and inform adults about getting involved in their communities and learning about their local ecosystems, and how to take action to keep them healthy in drought and in the new age of climate change. He could inform communities that smoke from prescribed burns may exceed permissible limits and even be unhealthy, but it’s far better than the choking smoke that accompanies uncontrollable wildfires, not to mention the potential those fires have to threaten communities. Smokey could bring indigenous land tending practices into the consciousness of the wider public, and acknowledge past mistakes. Smokey embodies toughness. He wants to extinguish all fires, but to move forward into this new world of climate change is going to require radical change. Smokey needs to change, and so does his message. We need to approach fire differently, and listen to the softer voices of scientists, Indigenous Americans, and nonprofit organizations who have much more to offer than the next salvage timber harvest.