Exhibits: Nature: Wildfire
Fires: Old and New
Native Americans used fire for many purposes, from clearing land to warfare, and often on a grand scale. The first white settlers in Ohio found forests as open as English parks, the result of repeated burnings by the Indians. These open areas facilitated the spread of bison to the eastern shores of what is now the United States, thus bringing a reliable food source to tribes far from the buffalo plains. The annual fall burning along the Hudson River lit up the banks for miles on end and provided a constant source of amazement to the Dutch of New Amsterdam who boated upriver to enjoy the spectacle. In the Midwest, repeated fires-- human and nature-caused-- created a vast prairie ecosystem that stretched from Mexico into Canada and supported what was perhaps the the greatest herds of hoofed mammals the world has ever seen, the American bison.
¯"t¯.? European settlers used fire to clear land, the newcomers' lifestyle of agriculture and communities of wooden houses was not adapted to the natural cycles of fires of North America. The native people could simply relocate their community when fire struck, but to the immigrants a fire meant the loss of everything.
As the frontier relentlessly pushed westward to the Pacific Ocean, the nation's population boomed, and settlements sprung up throughout the uninhabited grasslands and forests. With the spread of human activities came the spread of human-caused fires. Unlike the intentionally-set fires of the past, these were caused by carelessness or ignorance. A Wisconsin fire in 1871 burned more than one million acres and left 1,500 dead in its wake. Other fires were equally disastrous and at times it seemed, in the words of one historian, as if all of North America was on fire.
An End to the Destruction
As the 19th century drew to a close, many Americans felt that a burning forest represented more than just a threat to their homes and towns; it also meant the loss of valuable timber. They belived that nature existed for the benefit of humans and that its "destructive forces" --predators, floods, or fires-- had to be controlled. This lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world paved the way, among other things, for the emergence of a national policy toward wildland fires.
The task to create a policy for wildfire management fell upon the newly-created Forest Service. Because the people making that policy did not understand how forests are affected by natural forces, the policy called for the suppression of all fires. Soon, the entire federal government supported this plan fire suppression, backing the firefighters with all of its formidable resources. Professional firefighting crews-- the elite of the Forest Service-- replaced the ragtag armies of ranchers and local citizens who previously helped Forest Service rangers fight fires. Native American, and later Hispanic crews were organized as "special forces" to fight fires wherever they occurred.
Still, the importance of fire prevention and fire suppression lacked national recognition. The Forest Service started an advertising campaign in the early 1940s to create public awareness but it sputtered until 1950 when a small black bear cub was rescued after a major fire in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest. "Smokey Bear" became an overnight media sensation and a symbol for fire suppression. Unfortunately, the message Smokey Bear delivered to most Americans for almost half of a century was to fear fire, not to understand it. Today, Smokey's message has changed, teaching us that we must understand that fire is important to the health of our public lands, and that we must learn to live with wildland fires.
This exhibit is sponsored by the National Interagency Fire Center.
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