You too need to learn how to prevent forest fires


Making Ripples

The Australian wildfires have been devastating to humans and wildlife alike, and the internet is filled with photos of the destruction. Videos abound of thirsty koalas intercepting bicyclists for a drink of water and hungry marsupials with burned fur. Smokey the Bear, once an unequivocal hero, is nowadays somewhat infamous because of this question related to his famous saying: You can prevent forest fires, but should you?

On a practical level, well, yes. Smokey the Bear was right in that we shouldn’t throw cigarettes into dry timber or be irresponsible with fireworks and campfires. However, for forest managers, the answer is becoming more nuanced. Conservation practices shifted from banning fire altogether to introducing beneficial fire, controlling its timing and duration. Without small amounts of fire, humankind is realizing that we get big amounts of fire, especially in a changing and unpredictable climate.

Last year was Australia’s hottest, driest year ever recorded, according to its Bureau of Meteorology. This is one reason why the raging fires are also the worst ever recorded. Now more than ever before, it’s important to practice good stewardship everywhere on Earth to alleviate some of the consequences. Good stewardship will always be a changing concept as we learn more about the natural world and adapt to our changing planet. These days, some people are turning to goats instead of Smokey the Bear.

In a recent story from National Public Radio (NPR), Megan Manata interviewed the “firefighting goats” and their people in California. The city of Anaheim hired these goats to remove the brush (including invasive non-native plants) in order to remove fuel for future fires. Goats can reach steep, inaccessible areas that would be impossible for a human worker to reach with a weed eater.

The article also cited a study from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which found that wildfires had a double or triple chance of occurring where invasive plants were found, compared to areas with only native plants. Invasive grasses and plants need to be constantly managed because they grow quickly and in places where they shouldn’t be, disrupting our natural ecology and creating new and unusual conditions for fires to spread faster.

Goats can be one peaceful, rather enjoyable aspect of preventing forest fires, but they aren’t the entire solution. Goats aren’t everywhere, and they can’t stop blowing embers over Anaheim homes. “The city also uses heat-sensing satellite imagery and wildfire detection cameras,” noted the NPR article. People across the world are also living in dangerous areas where once there were no permanent homes, which makes fire more destructive in those areas.

As with most environmental problems, fire is complex and so are the myriad prevention steps. Critical thinking about these issues is key; very few things in life can be explained by merely one cause or one solution. We can generally make a bigger difference by reading news stories with this in mind, and taking actions that acknowledge the nuances. There is plenty of room in the world for new inventions and studies. Who knows, maybe the next solution will come from you!

Amanda Bancroft is a writer, artist, and naturalist living in an off-grid tiny house on Kessler Mountain. She and her husband Ryan blog about their adventures and offer tips to those wanting to make a difference at

Categories: Making Ripples