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Archive for November, 2011

On this date in 1921, the U.S. Forest Service convened the first national conference on fire control at Mather Air Field near Sacramento, California. Virtually all the agency’s leaders and brightest minds came together for the conference, including six district (now regional) foresters and six forest supervisors, numerous Washington office people including Chief William Greeley, and others of various ranks. Leaders in fire research and policy such as S. B. Show, E. I. Kotok, Evan Kelley, and William Osborne attended, as did Aldo Leopold and future chief Lyle Watts. All seven districts were represented.

The two-week long conference, the first national conference held by the U.S. Forest Service on any topic, was organized to address the controversy surrounding the issue of allowing light burning on federal lands. California was chosen as the host site because that district was a leader in the development of fire control theory and practice, and because many of the problems there could be found throughout the country.

A major outcome of the conference was settlement of the debate between those favoring “let burn” and light burning and those like Greeley and Show who believed in aggressively attacking all fires. Policies varied from district to district and even forest to forest. The agency found itself in a quandary because it was letting some light burning occur on lands adjacent to national forests but demanded that fires on federal land be fought. Agency leaders felt that this contradiction undermined its authority and wanted to formulate a national standard. The debate over what to do had been raging for more than a decade and had become important enough to prompt a national conference on the topic. Greeley’s position was clear; in an article a short time before, he had derisively dismissed the use of light burning as “Paiute burning.”

Not surprisingly Chief Greeley decided in favor of attack and control. The agency set forest fire control as a priority over other activities, established national forest fire control standards, and provided for cooperation in forest fire control between districts. This new attitude towards fire control is best exemplified by the “10 a.m. policy,” under which the Forest Service decreed that all fires on federal land would be attacked as quickly as possible and fought until extinguished. The Forest Service is still dealing with the fallout of that decision ninety years later because the resulting fuel buildups continue to create problems for fire control personnel and forest managers.

For Greeley, the outcome of the conference gave him the opportunity to shape agency policy as he had long hoped. As the district ranger in Montana during the 1910 fires, he had come away from that disaster convinced of the need for cooperative fire control and the elimination of fire from forests. After the 1921 conference, he unequivocally committed the agency to cooperative forest management and systematic fire control. His next major move was pushing for the Clarke-McNary Act of 1924, which strengthened and expanded the provisions of the Weeks Act, particularly in cooperative fire control. To achieve these goals, Greeley brushed aside dissent and further debate on the topic of light burning, which left those who favored it labeled as heretics for years.

To learn more about the conference and its impact, you may wish to consult Stephen Pyne’s Fire in America, from which much of this information is drawn. We also have oral history interviews with Kotok, Show, and Kelley.

1921 Fire Control Conference

Osborne is standing 2nd from left; Watts is 6th from left; Greeley is in the second row 7th from left; and Leopold is 3rd from left in the front row. (click to enlarge).

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Everyone knows Smokey Bear, Woodsy Owl, and maybe even Ranger Rick Raccoon, but there are many other forest and forestry-related fictional characters that long ago fell by the wayside. Peeling Back the Bark‘s series on “Forgotten Characters from Forest History” continues with Part 5, in which we examine the Fire Wolf.

Fire WolfA blood-curdling howl echoes through the forest. The wind suddenly picks up, bringing with it a blanket of thickening smoke. The temperature begins to rise and a red glow shines ominously on the horizon. The howl grows closer, suddenly transforming into loud and unnerving laughter. It can only mean one thing: the Fire Wolf is on the loose.

The Fire Wolf was born at the end of World War II, during an era of rising concern about catastrophic wildfires throughout the western United States. With fire constantly threatening the American timber supply, forest industry groups began to fight back. Education quickly became an important weapon in the industry’s fight. During the 1940s, a deluge of fire prevention messages were dropped on the general public. Contributing to this effort was American Forest Products Industries (AFPI), a research and promotional arm of the lumber and wood products industries (AFPI would later be renamed the American Forest Institute before becoming part of the American Forest & Paper Association in 1992). In addition to their usual work promoting the industry, the folks at AFPI also began running numerous forest fire prevention campaigns during the 1940s. One of these advertising campaigns, first launched in 1945, featured a character known as the Fire Wolf.

Fire Wolf fire prevention character

Coming on the heels of AFPI’s popular “Woody” character that launched four years earlier, the Fire Wolf was designed to capture the attention of children and adults alike. In contrast with fellow fire prevention symbol Smokey Bear, who premiered a year earlier in 1944, the Fire Wolf was no friend of the forest. Dubbed “Forest Enemy No. 1,” he operated with a modus operandi similar to the Guberif. As presented in various print advertisements, the Fire Wolf—his body literally made of flames—stalked the forest, threatening innocent woodland animals and other wildlife. A crafty creature, he made fast friends with careless smokers and lazy campers. The Fire Wolf welcomed destruction by flame, taking an arsonist’s glee in watching the woods burn. Liked to play with matches? The Fire Wolf was your boy. This big bad wolf wouldn’t just blow your house down, he’d burn it to the ground. No wolf in sheep’s clothing, he’d sooner douse you in gasoline than pull wool over your eyes. Absolutely no one in the vicinity of a forest was safe from his wrath. As the ads declared, “Every creature in the woods is scared to death of the Fire Wolf.”

Fire Wolf advertisement

During his brief heyday in the late 1940s, the Fire Wolf appeared in advertisements throughout the U.S. and Canada (Fire Wolf was given a boost north of the border through the cooperation of the Shawinigan Industries of Canada). Even more so than other forgotten characters, though, his time in the spotlight was incredibly short-lived. Fire Wolf was never able to gain significant traction with the public—especially in the face of the growing popularity of other characters such as Smokey Bear and Woody. His existence only in print ads also limited his impact (as opposed to Woody who made public appearances on behalf of AFPI). Fittingly, the Fire Wolf’s lifespan was that of a match, just a fleeting flame across the national fire prevention scene. In the end, maybe it was better for the Fire Wolf to burn out quickly rather than slowly fading away. In remembrance of his brief but useful career, continue reading for a few selections from the AFPI records and scrapbooks featuring the Fire Wolf in his prime.
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