Smokey Bear, the U.S. Forest Service mascot, has been educating the public that "Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires," for nearly seven decades.
Until March 2, a team of forest and firefighting professionals will be spreading that message throughout Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties.
Debris from last April's tornadoes combined with persistent drought conditions have led the Georgia Forestry Commission to partner with federal, state and local agencies in preparation for another potentially severe wildfire season.
"The wildfires of 2011 went down in the record books as one of the worst in our state's history," said Eric Mosley, community wildfire protection specialist for the GFC. "Unfortunately, wildfire conditions have not improved and we expect another active fire season this year."
Fire prevention specialists from the GFC, the USFS, the National Park Service, Catoosa County Fire Department and local government gathered last week in Ringgold to prepare a unified approach during the upcoming fire season.
"We started putting teams in place about six months ago," Mosley said. "The idea is to saturate areas with fire prevention information. We also want to develop a multi-partnered approach to stave off wildfire and plan how to respond to wildfire."
Mosley, who along with Jim Sorenson of the North Georgia Fire Protection Education Team facilitated the meeting, said it is critical that firefighters stay attuned to each county's specific fire dangers.
"We need to know the local needs," Sorenson said. "Here, the emphasis is on tornado-related damage and its additional [wildfire] fuel loading."
Steve Blackwell, the GFC's chief ranger for Walker County, said three of the four most recent wildfires he has dealt with were the result of property owners burning debris.
"They don't have a permit and just walk off after lighting a brush pile," he said.
Carelessness and accidents cause some local wildfires, but most are deliberately set, foresters said.
"The No. 1 cause of wildfires in Dade County for the last five years has been arson," said Heath Morton, the chief GFC ranger for that county. "I don't think the public realizes how bad it is, or what could happen in this tornado debris."
Morton described what should have been a routine two-acre fire on Lookout Mountain that, due to problems posed by the tornado, earth moving equipment could not be used to cut fire breaks that would help contain the blaze.
Instead, crews from five counties were called to fight a fire that grew to cover more than 50 acres over a nine-day period.
"Only hand tools were useable," he said. "Without rain, we'd still be up there."
Similar situations exist throughout the area; a tangled web of twisted or downed trees makes it nearly impossible to even employ bulldozers when tornado-touched areas begin to burn.
"The majority of storm-damaged land is untouched and many sites have timber down that has dried to tinder," Catoosa County Fire Chief Chuck Nichols said. "There are few fire breaks and some of the terrain doesn't allow the use of mechanized equipment."
And it isn't just steep slopes in the middle of a forest that require firefighting being done by men wielding pulaskis, chain saws or fire rakes. Nichols said his department has "one brush fire vehicle" and that most fire apparatus are too heavy for off road use.
Sorenson said the potential for a small burn being fanned into a big blaze is very high this fire season, making it increasingly important for professionals to develop a coordinated plan to fight wildfires.
While the professionals "talked shop" about how the local landscape, with its mix of ridges and lowlands, private and public lands, offers unique challenges, they agreed public education has never been more important in stopping fires before they can start.
That is why this team is promoting the National Fire Protection Association's Firewise program that teaches people how to take appropriate actions before a wildfire, actions that will protect their lives and property.
"We need to educate the public to help prevent people-caused fires," Mosely said. "In nine days we dan't clean up a county, but we can advise homeowners what they can do to make a difference."
As Smokey Bear first stated in 1944, "Care will prevent nine out of 10 forest fires."