Stand down, Smokey Bear. Burnie the Bobcat wants to start good fires

 Sammy Roth, LA Times Columnist

The newly installed billboard off Interstate 80 offers a badly needed twist on eight decades of firefighting dogma.

Its message: “Only you can decide our fiery future.”

When I wrote last month that Smokey Bear and his “only you can prevent wildfires” slogan have become sadly outdated — with climate scientists telling us our history of aggressive fire suppression has actually resulted in bigger, more destructive blazes by stopping forests from trimming themselves — I didn’t think there would be such a good solution in my inbox so quickly.

But then I got an email from Emily Schlickman, a professor of landscape architecture and environmental design at the University of California, Davis. She told me that she and one of her colleagues had created a new Smokey-esque character called Burnie the Bobcat, and Burnie would be making her debut on a billboard between Sacramento and Davis shortly.

And by total happenstance, Burnie would replace a billboard that featured Smokey.

“What if Smokey got a buddy? And what if this buddy had a little bit more of a nuanced perspective?” Schlickman asked when I called her up. “What if Smokey was all about avoiding bad fires, and this buddy was all about promoting good fire?”

In other words, what if we could stop fearing all wildfires and start accepting the benefits they can bring?

Schlickman has spent several years working with her colleague Brett Milligan on a book about learning to live with fire, and more recently developing an exhibit, Pyro Futures, for UC Davis’ Manetti Shrem Museum. The exhibit will present three possible visions of California’s future: one in which we take serious action to fight climate change, while also giving people in fire-prone towns the support they need to relocate; one in which climate-fueled conflagrations grow wildly out of control; and another in which Native American tribes are given much greater rights to carry out cultural land-burning practices, helping forests stay healthy.

Burnie the Bobcat is an outgrowth of that forward-looking vision.

Originally, Schlickman said, she wanted to “give Smokey a drip torch and give him fire-lighting gear instead of firefighting gear.” But with copyright protections, that wasn’t going to happen. So she and Milligan started looking at “pyrophilic” animals that can benefit from fire, such as woodpeckers that take up residence in scorched trees. They ended up brainstorming half a dozen cute animal mascots on which museum visitors will get to vote, including Cinder the Coyote, Flame the Fox and Torchy the Tule.

The billboard outside Sacramento, which went up last week, is a test run for one of those characters, Burnie the Bobcat. It’s Schlickman’s favorite mascot thus far. She told me bobcats are generally good at escaping fires, with the predators eventually “reaping the benefits of healthier, robust vegetation that supports prey population” after the flames die down.

“My hope is that this is a starting-off point for a larger campaign,” Schlickman said.

She’s a worthy messenger.

While on maternity leave a year ago, she told me, she “got bored” and decided to take online training classes for lighting controlled burns — fires started on purpose during optimal weather, to cut down on forest overgrowth and prevent worse blazes laterShe had to pass an endurance test that required her to walk three miles carrying 45 pounds in 45 minutes.

Since then, she’s worked on several controlled burns in Northern California, alongside experienced crews. She remembers one of the burns was fast and hot, with 30-foot-high flames that were gone in 45 minutes. Another was a “slow rambling burn.”

On her second burn, she was part of an Indigenous-led crew. When she announced she had to go home to take care of her six-month-old son, one of her Native American crewmates turned to her and asked, “Why don’t you bring him next time?”

Schlickman hasn’t done that, at least not yet. But her six-year-old daughter keeps asking to join her.

“With cultural burning, it’s really a family event,” she said. “Often you’ll get toddlers there, safely outside the line of fire.”

The idea of embracing “good fire” — a term that Schlickman sees as overly simple, but useful — flies against decades of government-led messaging encouraging us to snuff out flames at all costs. There’s good reason that message continues to resonate. Wildfires kill people. They destroy homes and knock out power. They fill the air we breathe with toxic chemicals.

But especially with climate change driving bigger and more destructive fires — which in turn cause trees to release even more heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere — we need to start changing the way we see and engage with the world.

Ending the combustion of planet-warming fossil fuels will require us to embrace a wide range of clean energy solutions, some of which we’re predisposed to dislike — such as sprawling solar farms that can destroy wildlife habitat, towering wind turbines that can mutilate migratory birds and rooftop solar panels that critics say are too expensive and shouldn’t be subsidized.

Similarly, adapting to the rising temperatures already affecting our daily lives will require new ways of living.

That could mean pulling back our coastal homes as the oceans rise, or taking trains and buses instead of personal cars. With fires, it means accepting the slight risk of a controlled burn spiraling beyond our control — which does happen once in a great while — as a worthy sacrifice for dramatically reducing the risk of an uncontrolled blaze wiping out a town such as Paradise, Calif.

Letting Burnie the Bobcat tell that story probably makes more sense than trying to update Smokey Bear.

“We can’t touch Smokey,” Schlickman said. “So what else can we do?”

The museum exhibit will be on view in Davis from January through June. It was developed with support from fire ecologists and other experts, with Schlickman and Milligan using an artificial intelligence platform to help design Burnie and the other possible “good fire” mascots. Their work has been funded by UC Davis so far, with their longer-term vision of a national campaign almost certainly dependent on a lot more money — and ideally a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

As it happens, I’m in the Sacramento area this week, and I drove past the billboard the other night. The sky was dark, and the weather was stormy, but Burnie made an impression. The bobcat stared out at me, her visage grim and determined.

I don’t love the idea of more fires. But better to take control of our destiny than leave it to carbon in the atmosphere.

Read the column on the LA Times website.

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