Cades Cove
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Smokey Bear

to Smokey's Web!

Smokey has a big job caring for the over 700 million acres of forest in the United States. That’s because fire can destroy these forest lands and the places that Smokey and his friends call home.

Join Smokey for some forest and campfire fun. And, along the way, discover Smokey’s rules for forest fire safety and prevention so that you can become a member of Smokey’s team!


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Our national parks are constantly being threatened by a large number of forest fires throughout the year. There are approximately 125,000 forest fires annually of which 92% are the result of man-made causes. These "man-made" causes include fires that are the result of campfires that are not properly extinguished, the burning of debris to clear land, improper extinguishing of smokers' matches or other tobacco products, fires caused by some form of arson, and fires resulting from railroad workers and lumberjacks. The other 8% are made up of natural causes such as lightning or unknown causes.

Not all forest fires cause the same amount of damage. In fact, there are three different types of forest fires that each have their own level of damage. The first type is a surface fire. Surface fires burn surface litter, small vegetation, and other loose debris of the forest floor. These forest fires may and often do burn into the taller vegetation. The second type of fire is a crown fire. These fires advance from top to top of trees or shrubs. These are the fastest spreading of all forest fires. The final type of forest fire is ground fire. These consume organic material beneath surface litter of the forest floor. These are the most destructive and most difficult to control of all forest fires.

When a forest fire starts it may do a variety of things. First of all, it consumes woody material. This effect is most often used in slash burning and land clearing. Forest fires also create heat effects which kill living vegetation and animal life and damage the soil. They also produce residual mineral products which often create chemical effects. All of these effects are very damaging to forest life and harm our nation's parks wpe172.jpg (4217 bytes)
wpe174.jpg (6849 bytes) One of the worst forest fires in a national park occurred in 1988 in Yellowstone Park. During this fire, 793,880 acres of land were burned. 41% of this land was burned forest, 35% was a combination of unburned, scorched, and blackened trees, 13% was surface burn, 6% was non-forest burn, and 5% was undifferentiated burn. Although this damage seems extensive, the recovery of the park has been proceeding rapidly. For example, areas that had mixed levels of burn and nutrient-rich soil have seen a significant increase in their crown biomass.

The National Park Service along with other organizations have begun to try and keep fire damage to our national parks at low levels. In 1981, the National Park Service along with the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service as well as others started the National Interagency Incident Management System, or the NIIMS, to deal with wildfires and other park disasters.

Although their main focus is forest fires, the NIIMS is an "all-risk" organization and is prepared to deal with any disaster. The backbone of this organization is the Incident Command System, or the ICS. This group meets during the emergency to gather information about the terrain, weather, and the fire behavior to determine where and how fast the fire will spread and how to control it. The NIIMS has been very effective in park disasters in the past fifteen years and played a major role in the extinguishing of the Yellowstone fire in 1988. wpe175.jpg (4453 bytes)

Although the NIIMS does exist and is doing a good job in dealing with the forest fires, many of the fires could be prevented. With proper education on what causes forest fires and proper law enforcement to deal with those who cause them, the number of man-made forest fires would decrease significantly. Currently, some attempts are being made to educate people on the proper use and extinguishing of fires. One well-known fire prevention icon is Smokey the Bear, who warns us that "only you can prevent forest fires." With more effort from people and more education from the proper agencies, we may be able to decrease the occurrence of forest fires and restore our national parks to their original beauty.

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