This Saturday, Smokey Bear turns 70 years-old. His long career urging America to prevent forest fires is well-regarded, but it's hard to feel too good about it here in California.
In California and the Western United States in general, forest fires just get worse and worse. A new study that we noticed from Vox.com shows that wildfires in the western United States have been growing at a rate of 90,000 acres per year between 1984 and 2011.
However, it's not Smokey's fault and you probably can't blame careless campers either. Vox explains that climate change is the likely culprit:
...wildfire increases out West seemed to be particularly associated with increases in the occurrence of drought, which is becoming more common in many of the regions studied.
This year, drought is the obvious problem. It means hot, dry conditions and leaves large portions of land vulnerable to big blazes. A New York Times article in May noted that this also means fire season comes early and lasts longer. Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection told the Times:
“It is really unprecedented to have these conditions this early. We cannot remember a year where we have had this many fires this early. And everything is just going to get drier and hotter — even more of a tinderbox.”
All these fires are costly, too. In 1944, when Smokey Bear was first released to the public, wildfires caused some $1.4 million in damage. Now, the five-year average (as of 2011) is more than $100 million: