Forest fires impact national parks

While parts of the eastern United States continue to struggle with too much water in the wake of Hurricane Irene’s passing, out west the dry conditions have led to forest fires that are having an impact on two of the nation’s most popular national parks.

Late last week, a fire sparked up on the edge of Yosemite National Park when a motor home caught fire. The blaze quickly spread to the Stanislaus National Forest, which borders Yosemite, closing down a popular road leading into the park itself. Over the course of the past five days, the fire has consumed more than 4775 acres, and while firefighters feel they have it under control, the park’s rough terrain hasn’t made the battle an easy one.

Fortunately, most visitors to Yosemite haven’t been effected by the blaze at all. In fact, park officials say that none of the park’s trademark vistas have been obscured by smoke, although nearby Merced River Canyon has seen its walls blackened by the fire. The park itself remains open, although visitors will want to check the status of Highway 140 before using that entrance.

Meanwhile, lighting strikes were responsible for igniting five forest fires in Yellowstone National Park last week as well. The fires were discovered throughout the day on Thursday after a storm passed through the area the night before. Park Service firefighters reacted quickly to each of the blazes, and they were contained before the flames could spread too widely. Yellowstone remains at a “very high” risk for wildfires at the moment however, and heading into the long Labor Day weekend, there are some concerns about more fires springing up.
Yellowstone was of course the site of one of the largest and most devastating forest fires in U.S. history, when more than 793,000 acres were consumed by flames in 1988. The remnants of that wildfire are still evident today, but it has also brought renewed life to the park’s ecosystem as well. While it is a long, slow process for the forest to rebuild itself, it is amazing to see plants and animals return to the park as the natural ecological forces take over.

If your Labor Day plans include camping in a local, state, or national park, be sure to check-in with park rangers to find out of their are any fire restrictions in effect. Campfires, grills, or camping stoves can all be very dangerous during the late summer.

You can also check to find the status on the most recent wildfires in your area as well.

[Photo credit: AP Photo/The Reporter via Rick Roach]

Smokey Bear returns, still fighting wildfires

An icon in the advertising world returned to the airwaves recently when the Ad Council and the USDA Forest Service, launched a new campaign featuring Smokey Bear, who continues to remind us that “only you can prevent wildfires.” The new campaign includes a series of PSA’s that are already airing on television, as well as an educational DVD designed for elementary children.

Smokey first made his appearance back in 1944 and over the years he has become one of the most recognizable animated characters of all time. Smokey has educated several generations of children about the dangers of forest fires, and since his introduction, the number of acres that are burned up annually has gone down from 22 million in 1944, to 6.5 million today.

Since his humble beginnings, Smokey has been trying to warn us about wildfires and their causes. For instance, did you know that 9 out of 10 forest fires are caused by people? Most are due to campfires left unattended, trash burning on windy days, arson, careless discarding of smoking materials or BBQ coals. We often operate under the false assumption that they are a natural occurrence caused by lightning, and while that does happen, it is quite rare.

With his return, Smokey brings a snappy new slogan that invites you to “Get Your Smokey On.” He also continues to remind us of our responsibilities when we use fire in the wild, and that even after all these years, he still needs our help to prevent the nearly 70,000 wildfires caused by humans each year.

In another example of his jump to the 21st century, Smokey can be found on all the regular social media outlets, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Or you can check out the all new Smokey at

(Articled edited to get Smokey’s name right! We can’t have him attacking after all!)

Pirates vs cruise ship: Travel fibs I’ve told my mother and a poll

I don’t plan to tell my mother lies when I travel. I actually think what I’m saying is accurate information, but I have one of those mothers who sees disaster looming at many corners so I try to sideswipe her fears with a “That won’t happen.” The latest fib has to do with the pirates that attacked the MSC Melody cruise ship on Saturday.

See, just last month I insisted that pirates would not attack an MSC Cruise Line because I wanted her to agree to go with me and my son on a Greek cruise on the MSC Musica. My mother balked at first. She wondered about pirates. “Oh, Mom,” I said. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Then there was the fire.

Two summers ago, I told her there wasn’t any chance that we were going to be in the midst of the fires that were blazing in Montana the same time that we were heading there. Never mind that the fires were making the national news.

Do the fires that were blazing right next to the highway count? They weren’t dangerous. All they were doing were burning up sections of hillside a few feet from the road when we passed. We did follow the warning sign that flashed “Don’t stop.” My daughter was able to snap this picture, however. Neat, huh?

Then there was the earthquake. I told my mom that Taiwan was perfectly safe and sound when my husband and I decided to move there with our then 6-year-old daughter. Three weeks after we moved to Hsinchu, I woke up in the middle of the night with the bed shaking like the tornado scene in the Wizard of Oz.. It wasn’t like we were at the epicenter, just close enough that objects spilled off shelves, we lost electricity for four days and most of the TVs at the swank Hsinchu Royal Hotel down the street took a tumble and broke. You might remember that earthquake. It made national news and there was a girl on the cover of Time Magazine with her head bandaged up and building rubble in the background.

It’s not that I plan to fib. It’s just that when one goes out in the world things happen. I’m thinking that since one MSC cruise had a run-in with pirates, our cruise should be excitement free. The pirates aren’t near Greece anyway. Right?


Montana: Forest Fires and Calls from Home

Perhaps this has happened to you-you’ve headed off on vacation and people who love you start to worry if you’re safe. That’s happened to us this summer. It started when we were driving from Seattle, Washington to Philipsburg, Montana. In Coerr d’Alene, Idaho my cell phone rang. It was my mom. My husband’s mom had called her concerned that we might be driving right into forest fires. She had tried to reach us, but couldn’t, so she called my mom who loves to have a reason to call us. I assured my mom that we were safe, and as far as I knew, we weren’t going to be near any forest fires. I lied. Read on for more and the picture.

Seriously, I didn’t think we would be. I had no idea one would pop up in Clinton near the sight of the Testicle Festival right where we would drive through on our way to Missoula for the day. Sure, we could see the haze in the sky from where we’re staying in Philipsburg, but that was in the distance. By the time we hit I-90 the air quality started going downhill. A few miles from Clinton we had to turn on the headlights and a highway electronic sign said something like “No stopping. Fire incident.” It smelled like we were driving into a campfire. Not the small WoodGas Camp Stove variety–handy for cooking bacon, (see Thursday’s posts) but the big kind that could load up a large Girl Scout troop with enough s’mores to last them a week.

My friend who was driving tried to take a picture with her camera phone out the passenger window. We could see small fires dotting the side of the mountain before we passed to the other side and the air started to clear. On the way back, after dark, my daughter took a couple of shots. Here’s what a forest fire looks like when you’re going about 50 MPH on a highway at 10 PM.

Just yesterday my husband found out that my mother-in-law called Philipsburg’s Chamber of Commerce to get the forest fire scoop. Evidently, the town is on the news as being in forest fire danger or something. Even another friend who flew into Salt Lake City from New Jersey to drive to Philipsburg called the day before his flight to find out if we were being evacuated. As far as I can tell, it’s business as usual. I’m getting ready to head over to Doe Brother’s later today where there’s WiFi hook up so I can get a cup of coffee and load this baby up.

Five Famous Forest Fires

Rising temperatures and low humidity levels in Sequoia National Forest in California have done nothing to help firefighters who are currently battling to contain a blaze that has already burned almost 4,000 acres of beautiful forest. Authorities speculate the fire, which is now about 65 percent contained, was started by a camper in the Goldledge Campgrounds on June 3rd.

With camping season in full-force, it’s important to remember how easily a campfire can get out of hand. Who better than Smokey the Bear to lend a hand in teaching us fire safety? Only you can prevent forest fires, after all.

To really drive the point of fire safety home, I’m offering up some worst case scenarios from the past — from the great Michigan Thumb Fire of 1881 to Yellowstone’s largest fire in history, we’ll explore some of the most powerful and deadly forest fires the world has ever seen. Be careful out there!

Michigan, 1881. The state of Michigan is separated into two peninsulas: the upper and lower. The “thumb” of the lower peninsula (which resembles a mitten) hosted a number of fires in the early 1880s, the most violent and widespread of them being the great Thumb Fire. On September 5, 1881, the culmination of a severe drought, hurricane-strength winds, and the logging industry’s dried up leftovers, a scorching fire broke out somewhere in Tuscola County and spread over one million square acres (just over 1,500 square miles) in less than 24 hours. Almost 300 people were killed and over 5,000 were left homeless. Damage was estimated at $2.5-million (over $50-million according to this inflation calculator). The American Red Cross, which was founded a few months earlier in May of 1881, responded to the blaze which marked the organization’s first major disaster response.

Yellowstone National Park, 1988. What started as a single lightning strike in the United State’s first and oldest national park on June 22 turned into Yellowstone’s largest fire in recorded history. The fire was allowed to burn and spread naturally under the controversial “natural burn” policy which allows fires to continue burning as long as they were original sparked by non-human forces. Unfortunately, the summer of 1988 was “one of the driest and windiest since the park was established in 1872,” and before the winter snows fell and doused the flames, almost 800,000 acres were gone. Visitors to the park today can find seedlings growing amongst the charred remains. The National Park Services’s website for Yellowstone offers visitors the chance to be a fire spotter with their Mt. Washburn Fire LookOut Webcam. Though currently down for maintenance, the camera is located in a “glass house” on top of Mt. Washburn with panoramic views of the entire area. The fire lookout isn’t open to the public, but the same gorgeous, panoramic views can be seen from the top of the mountain anyway, making the 3 mile hike to the top one of the most popular trails in the park.

Georgia and Florida, 2007. On April 16, 2007, high winds blew through Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge — “one of the oldest and most well preserved freshwater areas in America” — causing a tree to fall on a power line, showering sparks on the drought-ridden land. By mid-May, this fast-moving wildfire quickly became not only Georgia’s largest fire in recorded history, but Florida’s as well. “As of today [Monday, June 11], there are 115 wildfires in Florida on 130,466 acres,” writes the Sun-Herald. The folks at NASA say that many of the extremely hot and erratic-behaving fires have been contained, but “smoldering and creeping fire will probably continue until heavy rain-possibly a hurricane-drenches the area.” To put it into prospective, the smoke from these fires is so immense that it has drifted hundreds of miles north and been spotted as far as North Carolina.

Victoria, Australia, 1983. Seventy-five people, including seventeen firefighters, died in what is known as Australia’s deadliest bushfire in history: the Ash Wednesday fires. The blaze was so massive and so incredibly strong that firefighters were unable to contain even small portions of it, and the fire only stopped spreading when it eventually hit the Southern ocean. “More than 3,700 buildings were destroyed, including 84 commercial, and about 1,000 farms,” according to the Australian government. Leading up to the fire, Victoria — known for it’s extremely dry climate — had been under a severe drought for over 10 months. Along with rainfall, the relative humidity was also extremely low which made vegetation brittle and powerfully flammable, and in under 24 hours, over 520,000 hectares (1.2-million acres) across two states were gone.

Colorado, 2002. Terry Lynn Barton, a U.S. Forest Service worker in Colorado, tried to burn a handful of letters from her estranged husband, but ran into a few problems. First, she set fire to love lost in an area where campfires had been outlawed due to drought — something a U.S. Forest Service worker, someone who enforces the no-fire ban, ought to know. This lead to the largest wildfire in Colorado state history — now known as the “Hayman Fires” — burning through 210 square miles of Pike National Forest, killing five firefighters, and causing nearly $40-million in damages. She was later indited on charges of “willfully and maliciously destroying U.S. property and causing personal injury by setting a blaze that has grown into a wildfire of historic proportions,” and authorities believe the love letter story covered up other reasons for deliberately
starting the blaze. She eventually pleaded guilty to arson, and is now serving 12 years in jail.