Smokey the Bear returns to Grayling with first two-sided digital sign in state
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
After a four-year hiatus, Smokey the Bear has returned to Grayling complete with digital signs to inform area residents and visitors about the dangers of wildfires.
A project to replace the Smokey the Bear sign, located in front of the Michigan State Police Crime Lab in Grayling, was recently completed. The property is owned by the City of Grayling.
Smokey the Bear was removed when the I-75 Business Loop was expanded to three lanes in Grayling.
Rather than put the old sign back up, which was in rough shape, local Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials opted to pursue a state-of-the-art digital sign.
Since the Grayling Fire Department is no longer housed adjacent to the crime lab, there was a lack of people to place the day-to-day wildfire weather conditions, which were hung on the Smokey the Bear sign.
“We didn’t really have resources to come down and change that sign all of the time,” said Mike Janisse fire supervisor for DNR’s Grayling Management Unit.
Instead, the new sign was purchased and put up for $37,322. Funds came from a federal Wildfire Risk Reduction grant plus dollars from the DNR’s fire equipment fund.
The electricity to light the sign is being provided by the City of Grayling.
The wildfire weather conditions can now be updated through a computer or any other device which can access the Internet.
“We want to make sure it stays current, so that’s why we didn’t put a portable one back up because we would have to drive down, and if somebody wasn’t working it wouldn’t be the current fire danger weather conditions,” Janisse said.
The weather conditions can be low to moderate one day, and change rapidly if there is dry and windy weather.
“It could change every day,” Janisse said.
The fire danger levels are downloaded every day at 2 p.m. for the next 24 hours.
There are a few digital Smokey the Bear signs located at rest areas located throughout the state, but Grayling now has a unique distinction for having the first two-sided sign.
“This is the very first sign that is a two-sided sign in Michigan,” Janisse said. “With the fuel hazards that we have and the amount of traffic that goes through the city, it was a perfect spot for it here.”
About 10 minutes after the sign was activated, people were getting their pictures taken next to the new Smokey the Bear sign.
“I think it is certainly an asset to the community,” Janisse said.
The sign was activated just in time for the spring wildfire conditions. So far this year, DNR crews have battled two wildfires in Oscoda County, four in Alcona County, and five in Crawford County. Two of the fires in Crawford County were caused by downed power lines, which were sparked grass and debris fires.
“We are normally well into the fire season by now and we still have some snowbanks in the forests or on two-tracks where it’s shaded,” Janisse said. “The Weather Service says there are equal chances for a high wildfire season. It won’t take long for us to get back into extreme, very high fire danger.”
The spring wildfire season will continue through June 1 as needles on jack pine trees gather moisture, other trees gain leaves, and grass continues to grow.
“The new green grass pushes through the dead grass, so it’s not as easy to start a fire then,” Janisse said.
People will be seeing a lot of Smokey the Bear this year, as he is celebrating a significant achievement protecting people throughout the nation.
“I think Smokey is an icon and a symbol to remember to put out your fires,” Janisse said. “It’s his 75th birthday this year, so there will be a lot of different programs with Smokey in them throughout the state.”
“Smokey Bear was born on Aug. 9, 1944, when the USDA Forest Service and the Ad Council agreed that a fictional bear named Smokey would be their symbol for forest fire prevention,” according to the U.S. Forest Service. “Artist Albert Staehle was asked to paint the first poster of Smokey Bear. It depicted a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire and saying ‘Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.’ Smokey Bear soon became very popular as his image appeared on a variety of forest fire prevention materials. In 1947, his slogan became the familiar ‘Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!’”
The slogan was later updated to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”
City of Grayling resident Catherine Hickey was tickled to see Smokey the Bear in Grayling, complete with the digital signs.
“I’m very excited,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming, but he’s back in town.”
Janisse has been a full-time DNR firefighter since 2001 and a South Branch Township Fire Department firefighter for 32 years. He has battled several large wildfires in Michigan as well as some in other states.
“Usually, we go out once a year out west to fight a fire,” he said.
In most cases, Janisse said wildfires are started by people who fail to call and check to see if burn permits are being granted to start fires.
“They don’t check it, so they burn in conditions where they were downstate and it was wet and they come up here and think it is wet as well,” he said. “Unattended fires and debris burns are most of our issues.”