“Only you can prevent forest fires,” a longtime message from the U.S. Ad Council and Smokey Bear.

With apologies to Smokey the Bear, and my many friends in California, some reading this in darkened homes with no power, there really ARE good forest fires, purposefully set by people, which could have and likely would have saved them this current nightmare.

“Controlled or prescribed burnings” are a key forestry and timberland management tool, largely begun and standardized as an industry best practice in the state of Georgia since the 1950s. Droughts, long, hot summers and fast growing and vulnerable pine and other evergreen trees often die, fall and litter the forest floor, along with pine straw, broken limbs and bark as well as other small shrubs and vegetation, each drying into a fuel source akin to the tinder you would seek out to begin a campfire.

So imagine thousands of acre of that tinder, piled up from decades of non-forest management and a nearly 20-year prohibition on controlled burns or even the use of the BIG rakes referred to previously by President Trump to cull out dead plants, broken limbs and dry underbrush...and you have the makings for massive fires, aided and abetted by the infamous Santa Anna Winds and other natural weather phenomenon, now annually visiting northern and southern California.

I in no way mean to be flippant. We have friends who have lost everything in these fires and last year’s...their homes, place of business...entire communities. And yes, perhaps some of the communities were developed in vulnerable areas and may not be re-built, despite their beauty and natural surroundings, but when we do make the choice to build a community, it also only makes sense to take the steps necessary to protect it.

Working in Middle Georgia as a television reporter in the mid-80s, I became quite familiar with the timber industry practice of controlled burns and fires. Hundreds of acres would be torched, in low wind conditions, sometimes even using accelerants, along with fire breaks (long ditches or natural bodies of water which would break or end the fire as it ran out of fuel). Yes, there was smoke, and sometimes blinding conditions, but rarely did any of those fires get out of control.

The Georgia Forestry Commission permits ‘prescribed burns’ as well as offering other resources including onsite assistance for larger burns. The state has multiple statutes regulating the process including: Georgia Burn Permit Law O.C.G.A. 12-6-90 and Georgia Prescribed Burning Act O.C.G.A. 12-6-145 to O.C.G.A. 12-6-149.

Controlled and prescribed burns fell out of favor in the western states a few decades ago, as these fires do release carbon into the atmosphere, and can add to smog and air pollution. But the difference is typically hundreds or a few thousand acres, and a comparatively brief and defined fire...or the current situation with millions of acres burning or at risk, turned from tinderbox to inferno by a lightning strike or an errant lit cigarette butt, aided and abetted by ill-timed but annual high winds.

After last year’s record breaking fires, causing massive property loss, power loss and deaths, California was at the heart of a national debate to expand the use of controlled and prescribed burns...and here we are a year later, with a whole new set of communities evacuating and at risk, and millions now temporarily without electricity due to the aging and vulnerable electrical grid in California, and its potential to spark or spread a fire due to the ongoing drought conditions. If millions sitting in the dark or millions of acres and dozens of communities literally running hoses on their rooftops to save their homes isn’t cause for an Emergency Legislative Session, I’m not sure what is.

People are losing their homes, entire towns are burning, dozens of thousands ons on both ends of the state have faced forced and mandatory evacuations and still may not return home. When winter and the potential rainy season finally arrive, break out the rakes and the backhoes and let’s dig some fire breaks and plan prescribed burns well into springtime. If the current NON-action pattern continues, it is only a matter of time before these fires move further north into the Pacific northwest and endanger those old growth hardwood forests, including our national parks and the Great Redwoods. This time next year may be too late to protect them. only you California can prevent your own forest fires. Just ask Smokey.

Bill Crane is a senior communications strategist who began his career in broadcasting and has worked at the state capitol and in Washington in both political parties. Contact him at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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