HIAWATHA NATIONAL FOREST — It’s the famous catchphrase that we have all come to know…

“Only you can prevent wildfires.”

But what about the fires that actually help the environment?

“Smokey’s message is right on. We want to prevent wildfires…or unwanted wildfires,” says Eric Rebitzke, Forest Fire Management Officer for the Hiawatha and Ottawa National Forests. “There’s also fires that do a great job of restoring the ecosystem.”

Prescribed burns are becoming more common in the Upper Peninsula, this is because the fire actually helps in many ways.

“The ash contains nutrients and it goes into the soil and, when we get the rains coming back in, the vegetation that sprouts is that much better,” explains Rebitzke.

Burning certain areas also create “fire breaks”.

“So if we do have an unwanted wildfire move through here, we’ll have a nice, clear defensible space to try and put it out,” continue Rebitzke.

The prescribed burns also help to reduce hazardous fuels, get rid of invasive plant species, and create wildlife habitat areas.

Rebitzke says that every prescribed burn goes through an extensive planning process and a fire is only prescribed if necessary. He adds that the Forest Service is trying to plan more prescribed burns.

“We’ve been enhancing our prescribed fire and hazardous fuels reduction program here across the Upper Peninsula, both on the Ottawa National Forest and the Hiawatha. So, you will see more smoke in the air but know that we’re doing what we think is right for the ecosystem,” says Rebitzke.

Prescribed fires are always closely monitored by highly trained firefighters from across the northeast region of the United States.

Smokey Bear turned 75 years old on August 9. The Hiawatha National Forest is holding a birthday celebration for Smokey on Saturday, August 24 at the Clear Lake Education Center near Shingleton from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. The event is free and will include games, crafts, cake, and of course Smokey himself!