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Upstart Squirrel Challenges Old Forest Fire Bear

Smokey Bear and his fire prevention message - "Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires" - have been around for almost 60 years. But now the old bear has some competition from another denizen of the forest. The upstart messenger: Reddy Squirrel.

While Smokey's voice has that deep, affected growl, Reddy sounds like a human…

That's actually Lori Messenger, the voice of Reddy. She's a U.S. Forest Service smokejumper and fire fighter in Montana. She says Reddy's message is all about living with wildfires rather than battling them.

"Forest fires happen. Be ready!"

Reddy wants people who live in the woods to build fire breaks around their homes and install fire-proof siding and roofs. She says Smokey's fire prevention message is fine… but she thinks it needs some updating. "I feel like I'm a pal of Smokey's and I hope he's not offended by having some young energy in here to help him out," she says.

Did she just say Smokey is getting old?!? She may have implied it... but Reddy's creator is more straightforward.

"I don't think Smokey will retire anytime soon but he's certainly getting long in the tooth," says Andy Stahl, who heads a group called Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. It's long been critical of the Forest Service's wildfire policy. "Reddy recognizes that Smokey Bear didn't quite get it right. We can't prevent all forest fires. And not only that, we probably shouldn't prevent all forest fires. Fire is a natural part of our forest ecosystems and by trying to put them all out we've made our forests unhealthy."

Mr. Stahl says Smokey represents "old guard" forest managers, who believe humans can and should manage all aspects of the forest. He says Reddy, on the other hand, believes managers should learn to work with natural processes that include wildfires. "We can no more prevent fire than we can prevent hurricanes and tornadoes and wind and rain and sunshine. Fire is a natural part of our environment."

Smokey Bear's message is not talking about the role of fire in the ecology," says Forest Service Spokesman Louis Suthord, who says Smokey's message is pretty narrowfocussing on the responsibility of campers, hikers and other visitors to wild land areas. "That is a different type of thing altogether," he says. "What the people in forestry in this country do not want is individuals causing a fire in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Mr. Suthord says Smokey's campaign is aimed at limiting human-caused fires. "That message, which began in 1944, is as good today as it was in 1944," he says.

While he could talk about Smokey Bear all day, mention Reddy Squirrel and he clams up. "I'm kind of staying away from that particular trade off one against the other... You know, I'll be glad to talk to you about what the bear's message is," he says.

But Reddy creator Andy Stahl hopes there will come a day when the Forest Service and Smokey Bear won't be able to dismiss his little red squirrel. That could take awhile. Smokey is one of the most recognized figures in the United States, and he has a huge public relations firm that's always working on his image.

Mr. Stahl has big plans for Reddy. She has her own t-shirt now... bumper stickers and TV commercials are on the way, and a fire awareness curriculum is being developed for grade school kids. Some day, he says, maybe Reddy will even have a huge PR firm behind her, too. When that happens, Mr. Stahl hopes Smokey will start to see things differently.

"I think Smokey is going to come around in short order. Every fire ecologist and every forest fire fighter out there in the real world knows that Smokey's message is an old one and out of date. And so Smokey's going to get religion it'll just take a little while," he says.