Forests and fire: A love/hate relationship

by Katherine McFarland, Science & Technology Program Specialist

This Arbor Day, as we celebrate all things tree, let us take a moment to reflect on the importance of fire. If this statement seems confusing, allow me to explain. Despite its seemingly contradictory appearance, fire is a necessary part of most forest ecosystems. I have taken part in a few controlled burns and, while earning my Smokey Bear pin, I found out that the distinction between wildfires and other fire is an important one.

Prescribed burn in the Loess Hills of Iowa.

Most people are familiar with Smokey Bear and his famous message, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.” Growing up I took this message very seriously. I pestered my parents whenever we picnicked to make sure that the fire was completely out before we moved on, and watched for discarded cigarette butts. However, since my childhood Smokey’s message has changed because “wildfires” instead of “forest fires” are now the target.

Smokey Bear has been promoting the prevention of forest fires since his creation in the 1940s by the Forest Service and the Wartime Advertising Council. At the time, forest fires were a threat to national security as a Japanese submarine in 1942 had almost set the Los Padres National Forest ablaze when a Santa Barbara oil field was hit by incendiary shells. With statistics at the time showing that nine out of 10 domestic fires were caused by people, not lightning, it was thought that eliminating forest fires caused by U.S. citizens would greatly reduce chances of a national disaster. Eventually, Smokey was chosen as the mascot for the campaign (after his predecessor Bambi retired), and has been promoting his message of fire prevention ever since.

1956 U.S. and State Forest Service stamp from

Interestingly, in 2001 Smokey’s message changed to, “Remember … only you can prevent wildfires.” This statement emphasizes personal responsibility in using fire while allowing for its importance as a tool of ecosystem management. In the hands of trained professionals, a prescribed fire (a.k.a. controlled burn) can eliminate excess undergrowth allowing plants and animals to flourish, while preventing fuel for a large wildfire to build.

Controlled burns are planned in advance to take into account weather and societal conditions, insure firebreaks and fire crews are in place and decrease chances of wildfire.

Diagram of a controlled burn created by the Florida Division of Forestry.

This Arbor Day, Friday, April 29, the Indiana State Museum is celebrating with tree plantings, activities and educational opportunities. Please join us from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to explore the wide variety of ways you can care for Indiana’s trees.

In-Your-Face Tree Fun, Free Trees and Tree Planting Tips for Arbor Day!

Tall or short, full or droopy, fruit-bearing or nutty: Trees, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. And of course, like people, they’re awesome for lots of different reasons.

From climbing trees as a kid, enjoying their shade as a teenager, or eating cherries grown in my own backyard, I’m happy to be a fan and I hope to instill the appreciation of trees in my 2-year-old son, who can’t wait to reach that first low hanging branch and begin his own climbing adventures.

So planning the Arbor Day Celebration for the Indiana State Museum is less like work for me and more like hosting a great big party for all of the trees that have contributed to my memories growing up. From the energetic program Trees, Who Needs ‘Em? to free trees, tree planting advice, tree trivia and wood art – I get to go hog wild with in-your-face tree fun each and every Arbor Day.

In addition to free trees (American plum and gray dogwood this year) and tree planting advice from the Department of Natural Resources, we’ll have a wood turner, live animals, Native American plant use, dulcimer building, tree science, bonsai trees and tons more!

Purdue will be on-hand to talk about tree-destroying insects and a giant Smokey Bear will remind us all that only we can prevent forest fires. Live demonstrations, take home treats, plus the chance to talk to tree experts and artists will round out one very nature-filled day and I hope you get a chance to stop by and enjoy the party.

Come join our Arbor Day party on Friday, April 30! For a full list of this year’s participants, please visit the official Indiana State Museum Arbor Day page.

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I “heart” trees!

Planting trees on Arbor Day.

Planting trees on Arbor Day.

By definition, I’m probably not what you’d call a tree hugger. I’ve never attended a protest or chained myself to a tree (or anything else, actually) and I’ve never gone on a hunger strike for the cause. Perhaps I should though, because I really dig trees. I loved climbing them as a kid and investigating what kinds of critters lived in them; and even old, dead trees meant the possibility of morels in the spring!

Since moving to “the big city” several years ago, I’ve especially missed having lots and lots of trees around. Luckily for those of us who need our tree fix, city and state park systems help provide a welcome reprieve from the daily bustle, treeless commutes and new subdivisions with their fresh landscaping. But we also need to do our part to make our yards, neighborhoods and cities more tree and nature friendly.

Carving trees with a chainsaw.

Carving trees with a chainsaw.

So in honor of trees, the Indiana State Museum, Indy Parks and Indiana Urban Forest Council are throwing a little party (okay, who are we kidding – we throw a HUGE party) to celebrate trees. We invite Tim Womick to come all the way up from North Carolina to get us hyped about planting trees and being good stewards of our environment. We have experts from across the state, including Dr. Speer from the Indiana State University Dendrochronology Lab in Terre Haute. (Dendrochronology: the science dealing with the study of the annual rings of trees in determining the dates and chronological order of past events.) We have a chainsaw carver, beekeeper, wood turner and tons of other groups. Then we invite the Department of Natural Resources down to pass out free trees to everyone!

As spring rolls in and the weather gets nicer, it’s time to head out to the park and enjoy the shade of a big oak tree and watch squirrels frolic in the branches. And hey, if you are looking to plant a tree or see a great Arbor Day show – stop on by the museum on April 24. We’re always looking for more muscle to help with our own tree planting.

For more information about the Arbor Day Celebration or to see a short video from a past event, please visit the official museum website: