By Kimberly Hopson
LAPLACE, La. — LaPlace Elementary School received a special visit from Smokey Bear on Monday morning. The familiar mascot toured several St. John the Baptist Parish schools to share information with kindergarten children about the dangers of forest fires.
The Smokey Bear character is based on a real-life bear cub that was found during a wildfire in New Mexico in the 1950s. Firefighters found the cub in a charred tree, where he had climbed to seek refuge from the flames. His hind legs and paws were badly burned, preventing him from walking. The cub was then adopted by a local rancher and named Smokey. Soon after, the story of the orphan bear cub spread very quickly, receiving national attention. Smokey eventually became a living symbol for the longest running public service announcement campaign in history.
His trademark phrase was adjusted to "Only you can prevent wildfires" in 2001, in response to the outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests. Older generations may remember his message, but it is also still relevant for young children today.
"The reason Smokey is still around is because his message is still pertinent. Most wildfires are started by humans," said Epney Brasher, associate state forester for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. "Almost 90 percent are set carelessly with things like debris burns, camp fires, or they're arson related. Very few are set by the flicker of a cigarette out the window."
Brasher said it is important for the public know the difference between an unchecked blaze and a controlled fire.
Controlled fires, called prescribed burns, are planned fires that are good for the environment. Brasher said wildfires are more common in the southeast in comparison to other regions, and the citizens of Louisiana should take care to prevent them because they are detrimental to the state's exported natural resources.
"In the southeast overall, we have more fires that than the west has any year. In Louisiana, last year alone, we had several thousand acres that were burned due to wildfire," said Brasher. "The Department of Agriculture and Forestry has a whole division set up for the protection of timberland. It is a defense that is funded by the state as well as through the department for the protection our resources. Timber is the No. 1 agricultural crop in Louisiana and provides over a billion dollars of income for the state every year."
Smokey and crew also made visits to Fifth Ward Elementary, the Child Development Center and East St. John Elementary. He visited West St. John Elementary, Garyville/Mt. Airy Math and Science Magnet School, Emily C. Watkins Elementary School and John L. Ory Communication Arts Magnet School on Tuesday.
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