Guest Post by Troy Lacey
As a child, I remember watching numerous Smokey the Bear commercials. I loved Smokey because he appeared to be a kindly, wise teddy bear that had an important message for me. Smokey was not frightening or abrupt but seemed to really care about us kids. I even felt important when Smokey told me that only I could prevent forest fires. What empowerment for me as a young child to know that I had the responsibility of saving our forests, and not just the responsibility but also the power to either save or destroy.
Of course as I watched those commercials and saw the scenes of devastation inflicted upon those forests by some careless person flicking a cigarette butt or leaving a campfire unattended, I was a little scared of that power. What if I didn’t prevent the forest fire? What kind of monster would I be to let the forests burn and poor little creatures die or be left homeless? Maybe I wasn’t good enough to be entrusted with that kind of awesome responsibility. Sometimes this made me a little embarrassed to watch Smokey’s commercials, as if he would somehow see through my inadequacies and chide me for my lack of confidence.
As a child, however, those thoughts passed through my head rather quickly, and it was on to thinking about playing with my friends or getting ready for school or reading my See Spot Run first grade books (and later comic books) or jumping into mud puddles. When you are young, it always seems as if there is a better time to think about things, specifically when there is absolutely nothing else to distract your attention. So Smokey’s public service announcements sat in my subconscious but only seemed to grab my attention when the commercial was actually on television; otherwise it was out of sight, out of mind.
As I grew older, Smokey’s messages started to annoy me.
As I grew older, though, Smokey’s messages started to annoy me. It wasn’t like I wanted to see forests burn or animals suffer, but I was tired of Smokey’s preachy attitude.
It seemed that if anything was fun, Smokey was against it. I couldn’t shoot off fireworks or camp in the woods or watch my friends smoke a cigar without a jaundiced eye. Just to contemplate those things brought an image of Smokey shouting in my ear, “Only you can prevent forest fires!”
Don’t even try to do anything with fire—that was the real message Smokey was conveying. “Fire is bad, trees are good,” Smokey seemed to be saying, as if he were some cruel god trying to take back fire from mankind so we would shiver and huddle in a dark and mirthless world. Well, I wouldn’t stand for it; Smokey’s constant harping had caused me to revolt.
I became a true pyromaniac. Anything having to do with fire was good enough for me—just give me fireworks, campfires, barbeque grills, and sparklers. I welcomed them all with open arms and pushed Smokey’s announcements into the deepest recesses of my mind.
Now that’s not to say I became careless; I always practiced safety first in whatever I did. No shooting bottle rockets into a drought-stricken forest for me. I always banked my campfires and put them out when leaving the campsite. I made sure my friend put his cigar butts into the campfire or ground them out on concrete or asphalt.
Maybe Smokey the Bear wasn’t on the level with us the whole time.
Perhaps my actions even became a subtle way for me to get back at Smokey—kind of like a “see people can enjoy fire and still keep your precious forest safe” dig at the old scrooge Smokey. Though my conscious mind would have scoffed at the thought, there was a little part of me that flinched, realizing that the only reason I practiced safety first was because of Smokey’s public service announcements that had been hard-wired into my subconscious.
As I grew out of my teen years and started to watch the news more, I became aware that maybe Smokey the Bear wasn’t on the level with us the whole time. I watched as firefighters on television would say they had deliberately set fires in order to remove underbrush from forests or to weed out pests and parasites. My mind reeled. Using fire as a forest management technique? What kind of baloney had Smokey been feeding us all these years?
With the advent of the Weather Channel, I learned that a large percentage of forest fires are started by lightning strikes—not humans. Yes, there was still a lot of stupidity out there in the world, and human agents will accidentally cause forest fires, but I began to feel that maybe Smokey had a hidden agenda. Just as many acts of God as acts of man started forest fires, so why should I listen to a preaching bear?
Candles to Smokey are like creepy clown dolls to everyone else.
Now as I watch the new Smokey the Bear PSA’s I discover the message is “only you can prevent wildfires,” not forest fires anymore. Now Smokey wants us to stop all wildfires. Is a bonfire in the middle of a person’s yard a wildfire? Does Smokey want to put church youth groups in prison for roasting s’mores over an open flame? The latest PSA’s even have people morphing into Smokey, and Smokey is trying to banish even more fun activities. Spoilsport Smokey pooh-poohs birthday cakes and makes you feel guilty if you give him one. Apparently candles to Smokey are like creepy clown dolls to everyone else. He even has a “Don’t start your ATV near a grassy field . . . it can lead to wildfires” promo. I mean, come on—is there anything that you can do outdoors now? Not according to Smokey, I guess.
If I could say a few things to Smokey, it would probably be something like this: Please Smokey, don’t insult our intelligence anymore. Your scare and bully tactics don’t work now. If you would say something like, “We can minimize dangerous wildfires and forest fires by practicing a few common-sense safety procedures,” we’d all be on board. But get over trying to tell people how to live every facet of their lives outdoors—you’ll just tick people off and make things worse.
After all Smokey—
“Only you can prevent people from tuning you out on wildfire safety.”
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Troy Lacey works at the desk behind me as a science writer and our resident know-it-all (from comic books to rock layers to world history to the flag of Sri Lanka, Troy has an answer for almost any question). He is also a connoisseur of weird snacks (which he always shares) and has been struck by lightning twice.