Bears watching

If you're leaving Portales via U.S. 70, N.M. 206, or N.M. 467, you'll see Smokey Bear warning you about daily fire danger.

Fire danger has been listed as extreme for a little over a year because of drought conditions.

Christina Calloay: Portales News-Tribune

Portales firefighter Darren Elrod points to a bullet hole in fire danger icon, Smokey Bear. Elrod says these signs are used to alert the public about fire danger in the area but some people use the signs as target practice.

Here are some facts behind those signs:

History

Fire danger signs were common in mountainous areas, including Ruidoso, and were brought to Portales in 2007. The signs were installed by the Portales Fire Department to help aid with the prevention of wildfires in Roosevelt County and educate the public about the fire danger in the area. Division Chief Darwin Chenault initiated the process of obtaining the signs for the area, about a month before his retirement.

Smokey Bear

Smokey is a mascot of the United States Forest Service and he was created to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires. The real life symbol of Smokey Bear originated in the Capitan Mountains in the spring of 1950 when an American black bear cub escaped a wildfire that burned 17,000 acres in the Lincoln National Forest.

Signs

The signs are made of ply wood and depict a 5-foot tall Smokey with a shovel. Three of the signs were ordered but the sign on U.S. 70 going towards Elida was made completely from scratch because of damage.

Crime and damage

The signs have been vandalized many times. According to Portales firefighter, Darren Elrod who is responsible for the signs and their maintenance, signs have been changed for damage more than they have been for a change in condition.

Signs have been:

  • Shot at (Smokey Bear usually being the target)
  • Ran over
  • Individual fire danger levels have been stolen, particularly the "high" and "very high" signs

"We take our time on building these signs for the public making them aware of the fire danger and wildfire conditions," Elrod said. "For somebody to go out and shoot them and run over them, that's not helping the public at all."

FYI

What determines the level of fire danger:

  • Five levels are used to describe the fire danger for the day: Low, moderate, high, very high and extreme.
  • The level of fire danger for the day is determined by a report issued from the National Weather Service, which gives an outlook on seasonal droughts.
  • The levels are determined by a number of weather conditions including: Precipitation, wind, humidity, and temperatures.
  • Fire danger levels in eastern New Mexico are usually on the higher end of the spectrum and rarely change.

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