Was Smokey Bear responsible for the great Montana fires?

Some Forest Service ecologists reviewing the causes of the wildfires that destroyed a quarter-million acres of Montana last week have raised the heretical suggestion that the agency's aggressive efforts to control forest fires in fact made the blazes much more destructive than they might have been.

"The service has been following this Smokey Bear stuff for 40 years," said Danny Hart, district ranger at the Helena National Forest, which lost 28,000 acres to last week's fire. "But when you go out and fight every fire, you get a tremendous buildup of growth in the forest. Then when this fire came along, all that dense fuel was just waiting and away she went, way out of control."

"Fire is a fundamental part of the forest ecosystem," agreed E.M. "Sonny" Stiger, a veteran Forest Service ecologist. "But Smokey Bear and Bambi and all that have created this idea that all fire is bad."

Hart, Stiger and other proponents of a new "natural fire" policy said they feel that Smokey Bear's central fire prevention message is still valid. "Hey, we don't want people to think they're doing us a favor when they leave the campfire burning," Hart said.

But they have urged their superiors in the Forest Service to let some natural fires, specifically those ignited by lightning, burn at will. They also suggest that man should deliberately set some forest fires every year to prevent dense growths such as those that fueled the runaway Montana conflagration.

This latter idea is included in a proposed new fire policy set forth in the Federal Register this summer and now moving through the regulatory process.

The proposed change in regulations would authorize forest rangers to set deliberate fires in federally protected wilderness areas to eliminate "unnatural accumulations of fuel."

The proposed "prescribed fire" policy for wilderness areas has received support from several environmental organizations and could be instituted as early as this fall.

A major proponent of the change is Robert Mutch, an ecologist at the service's "Forest Fire Laboratory" in Missoula, Mont.

Mutch, a scientist whose office is decorated with photographs of fires, points out that the forest has a great deal of natural fire resistance. "To some extent, our aggressive fire suppression policy has interrupted nature's own fire-prevention plans," he said.

As an example, Mutch cites the ponderosa pine. The bark of that tree tends to peel away like tile as fire sweeps by, so that the tree "sheds" the heat and flame without suffering damage.

The heat-resistant tiles on the space shuttle are based on the design of the ponderosa's bark.

"The forest has had fires for thousands and thousands of years," Mutch said, "and those plants and animals have survived without our smoke-jumpers and fire-retardants.

"Now for the past half-century or so we've had the Smokey Bear ethic, and it may be we've succeeded in raising the overall flammability of the forest to the point where not even the ponderosa can survive when we do have a fire."

Since time immemorial, Mutch said, mountain forests in North America have experienced fires roughly every ten years.

Smokey Bear was created 40 years ago as a cartoon symbol of the Forest Service's decision to stop all forest fires, including those set by lightning.

"We've really done that job effectively," said Stiger, the Forest Service veteran. "And then last week, when all the conditions were just right for fire, you had this jungle of growth waiting to fuel it."

More than a dozen major fires hit Montana last week and most were started by lightning, the Forest Service said. Investigators believe that one began when a car pulled off the road for a moment and its tail pipe ignited the dry grass. Authorities have not located the driver.

Officials said more than 220,000 acres were scorched by the fires, which are now under control. One firefighter, Douglas Spaith of Roundup, Mont., died this weekend of burns suffered while battling the blaze.

There were no other serious injuries reported. About 30 houses were destroyed, according to the Red Cross.