The first news article I ever wrote about forest management

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I studied journalism at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, beginning in September 1969. The Journalism Department was located on the second floor of the Graphic Arts building and the Natural Resources Department was down the hall. Today, Cal Poly calls the department Natural Resources Management and  Environmental Sciences and the department has grown and moved to a big science building.

But the proximity of journalism to natural resources way back when meant that the professors bumped into each other now and again and I suspect that’s why my journalism professor, mentor and lifelong friend Jim Hayes suggested I write an article about what I was told was a new-fangled notion — that foresters might fight fire with fire.

I was a sophomore in college and I should mention that California was stunned by the devastation from wildfires in 1970. The Laguna Fire in San Diego County burned from Sept. 22 to Oct. 4. At 174,425 acres, it was the third largest wildfire in California history at the time (after the Santiago Canyon Fire of 1889 and the Matilija Fire of 1932). And although we’ve had many much larger fires in recent years, the Laguna Fire remained the third largest fire until 2003. A total of 16 civilian deaths were attributed to the Laguna Fire. And it was just one of many California wildfires that year.

I mention this to set the scene. Because with all of the many issues on California’s college campuses during the early 1970s, you might not think that Smokey Bear could make the front page of a student newspaper. Maybe it was a slow news day, but there he is in a cartoon the student editor used to go with my story.

You might wonder what this has to do with giant sequoias? Well, here’s the thing. A conversation about giant sequoia management inevitably ends up including fire. Giant sequoia trees need fire to get their seed started, some people will tell you. To be precise, I have learned, they need soil to be disturbed and typically that is triggered by fire, but sometimes logging will disturb soil and trigger giant sequoia regeneration… ah, but I’m getting out in the weeds here.

So back to fire. In the forest, I learned back in 1970, there is good fire and bad fire. And professors and students in the Natural Resources Department told me all about it. Some 30 years later, when I began covering forest management issues on Sequoia National Forest, I remembered that first story I wrote way back when. And now 50-some years later, when I hear people talk about prescribed fire like it’s some hot (sorry!) new thing, I’m scratching my head.

In case you want to read that story I wrote all those many years ago, I’ve typed it up here (fixing a few typos and hopefully not making more) so you don’t have to squint and try to read the reproduction.

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Here’s the first article I ever wrote about forest management, published on Oct. 13, 1970, in Mustang Daily, the student newspaper at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I led with the lyrics from the Smokey Bear song. The headline said: “Hey Smokey! Got a match??” And my name at the time (I was not yet 19 years old) was Claudia Galloway. The article ran at the top of page one.

“With a ranger’s hat and shovel and a pair of dungarees,
You will find him in the forest always sniffing at the breeze;
People stop and pay attention when he tells them to beware,
That’s why they call him Smokey, he’s the fire-prevention bear.

“Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear,
Prowling and growling and sniffing the air,
He can spot a fire before it starts to flare,
That’s why they call him Smokey, that’s how he got his name.”

So goes a song about Smokey Bear, whose familiar face greets motorists and campers in the national forests and elsewhere throughout the country, reminding them to drown their campfires, crush their cigarettes, break their matches and help prevent forest fires.

For about 40 years the government has used the Smokey Bear image in an effort to prevent forest fires. Yet recent evidence seems to show that the program may be hurting the very forests it was designed to protect.

“People don’t realize that not all fire is bad,” says Marvin Whalls, a Natural Resources Management instructor. The Smokey Bear program has led the public to believe that forest fires are bad and must be prevented. “Actually, fire is part of the environment. Except for the problem with erosion and property damage to man, forest would be almost entirely advantageous,” Whalls continued. “What we have to worry about, though, is wildfire.”

Wildfires are a different story. While fire as a management tool is being used with success more and more today, catastrophic wildfires, such as the ones in California recently, burn indiscriminately and uncontrollably.

Conditions were conducive to major wildfires this fall. The abundance of new growth from the heavy rains two years ago coupled with the relatively dry winter of last year to cause a lot of dense, dry undergrowth in the forests. Drop a match, or let a spark fly, and you can have a wildfire.

By attempting to persuade people to be more careful of fires, the Smokey Bear program does help some; but the problem lies not so much in the actual starting of a fire as in the conditions which led to an area being a fire hazard.

Control of the forest is the key.

“More and more people are realizing the importance of using control burns — the difficulty is in getting the public to accept them,” says Dr. R.J. Greffenius, also of Natural Resources Management.

John Delmonte and Frank Hinman, both students in Natural Resources Management, pointed out that, like most things, control burns have their good and bad points. Control burning is help in that, by burning away the dense, dry underbrush, it reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Also, the aftermath of a fire produces an increase in wildlife production. This may seem unbelievable since we are used to thinking of fire as ravaging the forests and leaving the animals homeless.

Actually, a fire helps the animals by providing more open spaces, which they prefer to heavy underbrush, and more fresh food.

By removing the larger trees, the fire provides space for the animals, more food and a greater short-term water yield. In short, fire contributes greatly to the total ecology of the forest.

Of course, there are disadvantages of control burning. One is that after a fire — either a control burn or a wildfire — the land is left denuded and there is an increase in erosion or siltation. Naturally, replanting is done immediately after the fire, but the success of the replanting depends largely upon the weather.

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Note: I notice that the Natural Resources Management folks didn’t mention smoke and I didn’t think to ask about it because, well, I was 18 years old and the thought never crossed my mind. The difficulty in getting the public to accept control burns persists, largely because of smoke and the risk of the prescribed burn turning into an uncontrolled wildfire. But we were all naive in 1970, thinking that a 174,425-acre wildfire was a really big deal. Take a look at this list of California’s top 20 wildfires by size, published by CalFire. We’re moving into millions of acres now and the Laguna Fire of 1970 doesn’t even make the list.


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