Fire Quotes & Perspectives

Multiple lightning strikes on hills. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service.

Before 1800

50 BCLucretius, De Rerum Natura: "The agent by which fire was first brought down to earth and made available to mortal man was lightning. To this source every hearth owes its flames."

RELATED ITEMS: Lightning vs. Human-caused Forest Fires

Lewis, Clark & Sacagawea. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

1804

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

Lewis & Clark's journals noted the frequency and occasionally the magnitude of praririe fires as they entered the Great Plains. Fires were ecologically important wherever grass growth was abundant to prevent secondary growth. They were set by lightning or accidentally by humans or often Indians set fires purposely for signaling or for improving grazing. The party noted those different types of fires and understood their purpose.

Blue sky with smoke rising from prairie. Courtesy of National Park Service.

JULY 20, 1804

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“...The soil of thes prairies appears rich but much parched with the frequent fires...”

Smoke column rising from prairie fire. Courtesy of National Park Service.

AUGUST 25, 1804

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“...We set fire to the Praries in two Places to let the Sous know we were on the river and as a signal for them to come to the river above, our party in the boat & one pirogue undr. The Comd of Sergt. Pryor answered us by firing a prarie near them.”

Blue sky with smoke rising from prairie. Courtesy of National Park Service.

AUGUST 27, 1804

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“...we set the Prarie on fire, to let the Sous know we wished to see them...”

Watercolor of two Indians hunting bison (George Catlin). Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

SEPTEMBER 16, 1804

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“These extensive planes had been lately birnt and the grass had sprung up and was about three inches high. Vast herds of Buffaloe deer Elk and Antilopes were seen feeding in every direction as far as the eye of the observer could reach.”

Watercolor of Indians on horseback (George Catlin). Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

SEPTEMBER 17, 1804

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“...the surrounding country had been birnt about a month before and young grass had now sprung up to 4 inches presenting the live green of spring.”

Blue sky with smoke rising from prairie. Courtesy of National Park Service.

SEPTEMBER 23, 1804

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“...they had set the praries on fire to let those camps know of our approach...”

OCTOBER 29, 1804

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

William Clark's journal entry for an incident is recorded near Ft. Mandan, North Dakota. This may be the first recorded wildland fire fatality and use of a fire shelter.

“The Prarie was Set on fire (or cought by accident) by a young man of the Mandins, the fire went with such velocity that it burnt to death a man & woman, who Could not get to any place of Safty, one man a woman &Child much burnt and Several narrowly escaped the flame. a boy half white was saved unhurt in the midst of the flaim" ... "The course of his being Saved was a Green buffalow Skin was thrown over him by his mother who perhaps had more fore Sight for the pertection of her Son, and [l]ess for herself than those who escaped the flame, the Fire did not burn under the Skin leaveing the grass round the boy. This fire passed our camp last [night] about 8 oClock P.M. it went with great rapitidity and looked Tremendious.”

REFERENCE ITEMS: From Bernard DeVoto, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Boston and New York: Huoghton Mifflin Company, 1997 [1953]), p. 60.

Blue sky with smoke rising from prairie. Courtesy of National Park Service.

MARCH 6, 1805

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“a cloudy morning & smokey all Day from the burning of the plains, which was set on fire by the Minetarries for an early crop of Grass as an endusement for the Buffalow to feed on...”

Smoke column rising from prairie fire. Courtesy of National Park Service.

MARCH 30, 1805

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“The plains are on fire in view of the fort on both sides of the river, it is said to be common for the Indians to burn the plains near their villages every spring for the benefit of the horse and to induce the Buffalow to come near them.”

Watercolor of hills along Missouri River (George Catlin). Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

APRIL 10, 1805

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“The country on both sides of the Missouri from the tops of the river hills, is one continued level fertile plain as far as the eye can reach, in which there is not even a solitary tree or shrub to be seen except such as from their moist situations or the steep declivities of hills are sheltered from the ravages of fire.”

Flames and smoke from burning prairie grass. Courtesy of National Park Service.

APRIL 28, 1805

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“...the air was turbid in the forenoon and appeared to be filled with smoke; we supposed it to proceed from the burning of the plains, which we are informed are frequently set on fire by the Snake Indians to compel the antelopes to resort to the woody and mountainous country which they inhabit...”

Smoke column rising from prairie fire. Courtesy of National Park Service.

JULY 20, 1805

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“about 10 A.M. we saw the smoke arrise as if the country had been set on fire up the valley of this creek about 7 Mi. distant. We were at a loss to determine whether it had been set on fire by the natives as a signall among themselves on discovering us, as is their custom or whether it had been set by Capt. C. and his party accedently.”

Blue sky with smoke rising form prairie. Courtesy of National Park Service.

AUGUST 31, 1805

Lewis & Clark Journal Entry

“This day warm and sultry, Praries or open valies on fire in Several places ...the Countrey is set on fire for the purpose of Collecting the different bands...”

Fire burning on forest floor. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1821

Timothy Dwight

Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York, wrote: "The aborigines of New England customarily fired the forest that they might pursue their hunting with advantage ....The grounds which were covered with oak, chestnut, etc., or with pitch pines were selected for this purpose because they alone were in ordinary years sufficiently dry."

Flames burning logs on ground. Courtesy of National Park Service.

AUGUST 19, 1825

David Douglas

David Douglas, Scottish botanist for whom the Douglas fir is named, described while traveling throught the Willamette Valley the Indian practice of burning areas of downed wood to cultivate tobacco in the ashes.

RELATED ITEMS: Wildland Fire—An American Legacy

Burning grass and lone pine tree. Courtesy of National Park Service.

SEPTEMBER 27, 1826

David Douglas

David Douglas found "beautiful solitary oaks and pines" in the southern Willamette Valley, noting that the entire area was "all burned and not a single blade of grass except on the margins of rivulets to be seen."

Flames and smoke from burning prairie grass. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1827

James Fenimore Cooper

Novelist James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Prairie, the final book in the Leatherstocking Tales about the frontiersman Natty Bumppo who is now an old Great Plains trapper. He and his friends escape from pursuing American Indians by hiding in tall grass. That night, the Indians ignite the prairie to flush out their quarry. The trapper saves the day by lighting his own fire and moving into the blackened area to escape the main fire. Cooper's novel suggests that American Indians and frontiersmen were proficient in the use of fire.

Burning prairie grass. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1839

Francis Chadron

Francis Chadron wrote in the Fort Clark, North Dakota journal "Having nothing better to do, I set fire to the prairie."

Southern pines and palmetto. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service.

1849

Charles Lyell

Scottish geologist Charles Lyell commented: “These hills were covered with longleaf pines and the large proportion they bear to hardwoods is said to have been increased by the Indian practice of burning the grass; the bark of the oaks and other kinds of hardwoods being more combustible, and more easily injured by fire, than most of the fir tribe. Everywhere the seedlings of the longleaved pine were coming up in such numbers that one might have supposed the ground to have been sown by them.”

Yellowstone geyser basin. Courtesy of National Park Service.

MARCH 1, 1872

Yellowstone National Park Established

Superintendent Nathaniel P. Langford wrote in his annual report for that year: “It is especially recommended that a law be passed, punishing, by fine and imprisonment, all persons who leave any fire they may have made, for convenience or otherwise, unextinguished. Nearly all extensive conflagrations of timber in the mountains may be directly traced to negligence in extinguishing campfires. ...Nothing less than a stringent law punishing negligence and carelessness, can save the extensive pine timber fields of the park from destruction.”

RELATED ITEMS: Report of the Superintendent of the Yellowstone National Park to the Secretary of the Interior for the year 1872.

1875

John Muir

John Muir's (1901) detailed observations of an 1875 fire in the sequoia forests of the southern Sierra Nevada provide a particularly vivid account of the patchiness of pre-settlement fire behavior. "The fire came racing up the steep chaparral-covered slopes ...in a broad cataract of flames ...But as soon as the deep forest was reached, the ungovernable flood became calm like a torrent entering a lake, creeping and spreading beneath the trees ...There was no danger of being chased and hemmed in, for in the main forest belt of the Sierra, even when swift winds are blowing, fires seldom or never sweep over the trees in broad all-embracing sheets as they do in the dense Rocky Mountain woods and in those of the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington. Here they creep from tree to tree ...allowing close observation..."

RELATED ITEMS: Restoring Fire to the Sequoias

Moon over burning forest. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.

1880

Professor Charles S. Sargent

In his Report on the Forests of North America for the tenth census, Professor Charles S. Sargent of Harvard College noted that "fire and browsing animals inflict greater permanent injury upon the forests of the country than the ax, recklessly and wastefully as it is generally used against them."

RELATED ITEMS: Early Forestry in the South and in Mississippi

1871 view of lakeside camp. Courtesy of National Park Service.

March, 1885

House Committee DeclarationHouse Committee dealing with Yellowstone National Park declared that "the most important duty of the superintendent and assistants in the park is to protect the forest from fire and ax."

Smoke rising from fire in pines and palmetto. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service.

1889

Ellen Call Long

Ellen Call Long, daughter of the Territorial Governor of Florida, observed:

“The annual burning of the wooded regions of the South is the prime cause and preserver of the grand forests of Pinus palustris [longleaf pine] to be found there; but for the effects of these burnings ...the maritime pine belt would soon disappear and give place to a jungle of hardwood and deciduous trees.”

Snag silhouetted against burning forest. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1890

Bernard Fernow

Bernard Fernow, Chief of the Division of Forestry stated:

“the whole fire question in the United States is one of bad habits and loose morals. There is no other reason or necessity for these frequent and recurring conflagrations.”

RELATED ITEMS: Fire Suppression

Burning grass and lone pine tree. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1890

Warren Vaughn

Warren Vaughn, Tillamook County, Siuslaw National Forest west of Eugene, Oregon wrote:

“At the time, there was not a bush or a tree to be seen on all those hills, for the Indians kept it burned over every spring, but when the whites came, they stopped the fires for it destroyed the grass, and then the young spruces sprung up and grew as we now see them.”

Dense vegetation after years of fire suppression. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1899

Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot observed:

“Where such forest lands have been protected from fire, as they are very largely through the progress of settlement, young trees have usually sprung up in great numbers under or between the scattered veterans which had survived the fires, and a dense and vigorous young growth stands ready to replace, by a heavy forest, the open park-like condition which the fire had created and maintained...”

August, 1910

Sunset Magazine Publishes Article By G.L. Hoxie

Sunset Magazine publishes article by G.L. Hoxie entitled How Fire Helps Forestry: The Practical vs. the Federal Government's Theoretical Ideas that stated

“...forest fire is a name of terror to all who love trees and who recognize the economic importance of forests...it will surprise the majority of readers to learn that prevention of fire may be made so complete as to menace the forests with greater danger than they now incur..." "Why not by practical forestry keep the supply of flammable matter on the forest cover or carpet so limited by timely burning as to deprive even the lightning fires of sufficient fuel..." "...fires to the forest are as necessary as are crematories and cemeteries to our cities and towns; this is Nature's process for removing the dead of the forest family and for bettering conditions for the living."”

REFERENCE ITEMS: Sunset 34 (August 1910)

Smoke rising from forest. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service.

1910

Protection of Forests from Fire Bulletin

Forest Service Chief Henry Graves issued bulletin Protection of Forests from Fire that declared "The first measure necessary for the successful practice of forestry is protection from forest fires."

Two men building fireline on smoky forest hillside. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service.

August, 1928

Colonel John White

Sequoia-Kings Canyon Superintendent Colonel John White wrote an open letter to the Los Angeles Times that congratulated the paper for limiting publicity about the impact of a fire that burned across national forest, national park, and state lands. The state of California suppressed the fire in the park after three weeks, their work was complicated by a backfire White and his men set. White trumpeted the instance as a positive example of light burning.

Fire burning on forest floor. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1933

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold recognized prescribed fire as essential to the management of wildlife habitat; he stated in the preface to his book Game Management that:

“the five critical tools of game management are the ax, the match, the cow, the plow, and the gun.”

Smokey Bear artist R. Wendlin and posters. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service.

1947

New Smokey Bear Slogan

"Remember, Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" is used for the first time on a Smokey Bear poster.

Smoke rising from fire in pines and palmetto. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service.

1950

U.S. Forest Service Southeastern Forest Research Station Annual Report

U.S. Forest Service Southeastern Forest Research Station Annual Report stated "Fire is now recognized as a valuable tool in the management of southern pines. It can be used for the control of brownspot disease in longleaf pine seedlings, as well as for hazard reduction, seedbed preparation, reducing hardwood competition, and for improving forage conditions and wildlife habitats. When properly used fire can serve all of these purposes with very little or no damage to the stand. However, there are cases where severe damage has resulted when prescribed fires burned with greater intensity than was intended. We still do not know nearly as much as we should about when to burn and how to burn."

Grizzly bear with three cubs by river. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1963

Wildlife Management in the National Parks: Leopold Report

Wildlife Management in the National Parks: Leopold Report, released and set the course for future management of national parklands by recommending:

“...that the biotic associations within each park be maintained, or where necessary recreated, as nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.”

RELATED ITEMS: Wildlife Management in the National Parks: The Leopold Report

Smoke rising from mountain in Glacier National Park. Courtesy of National Park Service.

1968

Administrative Policies for Natural Areas of the National Park System

Administrative Policies for Natural Areas of the National Park System was released and stated "The presence or absence of natural fire within a given habitat is recognized as one of the ecological factors contributing to the perpetuation of plants and animals native to that habitat." This was a major shif in the Service's approach to fire, from one of suppressing all fires in national parks to that of managing fire. The new policy permitted the use of prescribed burning and allowed lightning fires to burn to help accomplish approved management objectives.

Mark Trail cartoon. Courtesy of North American Syndicate, Inc.

AUGUST 1, 2004

Smokey Bear's 60th Anniversary

Mark Trail comic strip recognizes Smokey Bear's 60th anniversary. Smokey's message included:

“...I don't promote the suppression of wildfires or prescribed fires...my message is to prevent CARELESS wildfires! Prescribed fires can be beneficial to plants and animals and to prevent wildfires if they are done under SUPERVISED conditions.”