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Smokey Bear taught a simple message: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Modern fire science has grown far beyond that slogan, according to Tom Zimmerman, president of the International Association of Wildland Fire. But the public that breathes the smoke and the politicians who control the funding have trouble seeing fire as something other than an unnatural event that needs to be stopped.

“There are a lot of jokes out there about Smoky and drip-torches,” Zimmerman said. “We’re still coming out of that era when all fire was harmful. And there’s no good six-word message to replace it.”

Zimmerman spent 33 years as a fire management trainer and incident commander for numerous federal and state agencies. He visited Missoula as the inaugural Mike and Mabelle Hardy Fire Management Lecture speaker.

Wildland fire used to be something that happened in remote places, ruined commercial timber supplies and was officially considered a “menace.” Over the past century, American firefighters developed bigger and better ways of extinguishing fires, and boldly claimed to put out any blaze by 10 a.m. the day after it was discovered.

But that policy had several unintended consequences, Zimmerman said. Excluding fire from the landscape changed ecological processes that keep forests healthy. It also allowed the buildup of burnable fuel that changed the way fires behave – with catastrophic results. And it took place during a time when millions of Americans moved their homes from urban centers to wildland fringes.

“We’ve got to face it that not all fires can be suppressed, and not all should be,” Zimmerman said. “With major fires, the greatest gains we’ve usually had on them came from changes in the weather, not the kinds of resources we put on them.”

One thing learned from the Smoky Bear campaign is that the public will listen to fire education and work hard to change. The challenge now is to decide exactly what sort of change and lesson should be presented.

“Fire has a natural role in the environment and we need to embrace that and accept that,” Zimmerman said. But we also need to keep preventing human-caused, unwanted fires. And we have to understand that the firefighting tools we have aren’t designed to protect the thousands of private homes that now stand at risk of wildland fires.

“You’ve got to keep working with your communities to explain what’s going on,” Zimmerman said. “You’ve got to keep laying out the facts. But there’s a threshold to understanding, and I don’t know if you can keep that buy-in for very long when people are breathing smoke all summer. We talk about restoring fire as a natural process, and then you have one that burns five times as much as the plan calls for. You can’t say, well we won’t burn anything for the next five years.”

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