SHERIFF'S CORNER: 'Only YOU can prevent forest fires'

Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin

Lake County Sheriff Rich Martin

Courtesy photo

With the recent plea agreement with a firefighter that set two forest fires in Lake County last month to no jail time, I had to shake my head on the thought behind this decision. This could of been way worse had the loss of property occurred or the injury of the community or a first responder.

This is something that should of been taken seriously and the appropriate punishment should have been handed out. However, we are used to these silly reduced sentences that are of very little deterrent to future illegal activity, but I guess the path of least resistance is how unfortunately things get handled on most infractions or criminal complaints. 

So, with the ever threat of forest fires occurring with the hot summer season approaching, and the extra brush, trees and limbs that are on the ground due to the past tornado and strong line winds, I feel the need to mention a few things about forest fires. 

In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner," I discuss forest fires and fire prevention.


From the time I can remember, there was always Smokey the Bear in TV ads, posters and wildlife signs to prevent forest fires. So, let's talk about what Smokey was all about.   

Smokey the Bear is a campaign and advertising icon of the U.S. Forest Service. In the Wildfire Prevention Campaign, which is the longest-running public service announcement campaign in U.S. history, the Ad Council, the United States Forest Service (USFS), and the National Association of State Foresters (NASF), in partnership with creative agency FCB, employ Smokey the Bear to educate the public about the dangers of unplanned human-caused wildfires.

The campaign began in 1944 featuring Smokey and the slogan "Smokey Says — Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires." His slogan changed to "Remember ... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires" in 1947 and was associated with Smokey Bear for more than five decades.

In April 2001, the message was officially updated to "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires" in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests (such as grasslands), and to clarify that Smokey was promoting the prevention of unplanned outdoor fires, not prescribed burns.

Smokey has also had other lines throughout the years, but these have remained his central slogans.


Believe it or not, there are different types of forest fires. Here are the general and specific definitions:

A forest fire is unenclosed and freely spreading combustion that consumes the natural fuels of a forest — i.e.,grass, weeds, brush, and trees. Forest fires occur in three principal forms, the distinctions depending essentially on their mode of spread and their position in relation to the ground surface. 

• Surface fire: Is the type of forest fire that burns surface litter, other loose debris of the forest floor, and small vegetation; a surface fire may, and often does, burn taller vegetation and tree crowns as it progresses. 

• Crown fire: Is the type of forest fire that advances through the tops of trees or shrubs more or less independently of the surface fire and are the fastest spreading of all forest fires. 

• Ground fire: Is the type of forest fire that consumes the organic material beneath the surface litter of the forest floor; ground fires are the least spectacular and the slowest-moving, but they are often the most destructive of all forest fires and also the most difficult to control.

• Open burning: Is the burning of undesirable items as in grass, leaves, twigs, branches, trees, paper, and other debris that emissions and smoke will be produced. In short, this is your spring and fall yard clearing burns, bonfires, open campfires or any legal burning on the ground.


The majority of wildfires are human-caused by improper burning of debris, arson, campfires, discarded wood ashes and equipment. The following recommendations can help in the prevention of an accidental forest fire:

  • Obey local laws regarding open fires, including campfires.
  • Keep all flammable objects away from fire. Scrape away leaves, twigs, and grass within a 10-foot diameter circle from fire.
  • Have firefighting tools nearby and handy.
  • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • Carefully dispose of hot charcoal.
  • Drown all fires.
  • Carefully extinguish smoking materials.
  • Make sure firefighters can find and access your home. Mark your house and roads clearly, and prune away limbs and trees along your driveway which do not allow fire truck access. 
  • Don't use gasoline as a fire starter. 


There is no tangible document or piece of paper you have to obtain to open burn. A burn permit is a notification that it is okay to burn, or rather permission to burn.

Burn permits are regulated under The Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act 451 of 1994. The two state agencies that regulate the decision to issue or restrict burn permits are the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

It is easy to find out whether or not you can burn on any given day by visiting the DNR website,

— This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law. Topics covered are for educational and informational purposes only. As needed, excerpts from other articles are used for reference and/or content. If you have any questions on any specific topic, you may always email me your questions to