Outdoors

Surviving Smokey

The perils of wildfire prevention

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

It was a lazy, sun-drenched afternoon at the Skykomish Ranger District bunkhouse and my crewmates and I were milking it for all it was worth.

Fresh off a 10-day trail-relocation project deep in the storm-wracked clutches of the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness area, we inaugurated the festivities by airing out our feet and exploding the rain-soaked contents of our backpacks all over the lawn.

The layers of grime were prevalent, but with the aid of a high-pressure fire hose we progressed seamlessly into a sustained relaxation session.

Soon, a mountain of meat was sizzling on the grill and somebody wheeled a beer cooler to the fore. Frisbees flew. A croquet set was busted out. The dulcet tones of the Allman Brothers Band came wafting out of a boom box.

Then, just when the workaday world couldn’t get any further away, a mint-green Chevrolet Suburban with a full crop of CB antennas and an officious array of emergency lights swung into the parking lot.

With bated breath, we watched a spry silver-haired lady in full Forest Service uniform hop out of the vehicle and approach us briskly with a clipboard.

Her name was Mo, and she was recruiting volunteers for a mission of national importance.

“Hmm,” Mo muttered, profusely expectorating chewing tobacco as she zipped around the crowd with a tape measure, appraising each of us from head to toe.

“Well,” I finally asked, “what is all this about?”

“Visitor services is currently understaffed,” she barked, turning abruptly toward me, “and our wildfire prevention unit has a full slate of community service events to attend.”

Although this predicament sounded legitimate, it certainly didn’t fall within the trail crew’s bailiwick.

“Okey dokey,” she announced once she finished scrutinizing me. “Although you’re actually a little shy of optimal height, I’m desperate enough to take that chance.”

“Chance?” I said, growing incrementally more alarmed as she beckoned me to the rear of her vehicle. “Chance on what?”

The Smokey the Bear costume was folded neatly in a giant Rubbermaid container tucked between a five-gallon water jug and a box full of “Only YOU can prevent wildfires” brochures. Everything fell into place when she handed me the iconic ranger-hatted headpiece I’d dreamed of donning since I was a Cub Scout.

“Those dungarees run a little long so we’ll need to roll them up a bit extra at the cuff,” my handler advised as I peered through a pair of semi-constrictive wire-mesh eyeholes. “But the torso, paws and feet should fit you as-is.”

Over two sweltering, photo-op-packed days I dutifully endured dehydration, heat rash, heat exhaustion, jeering teens, combative adults and a twice-stolen ursine headpiece to spread the word that no matter how dry or wet conditions in our wildlands might be, it is always our personal responsibility to be careful with matches, lighters, hot sparks and fire.

Definitely not an Oscar-worthy performance. But I did earn pretty decent bragging rights.

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