ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) – Smokey Bear said it best: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
Following in the footsteps of their famous mascot, US Forest Service officials in the drought-stricken Southwest are urging people to trade in their fireworks this July 4 for glow sticks, noisemakers and cans of red Silly String, white and blue.
Not so fast, say some environmentalists. While it’s helpful to encourage people not to use fireworks amid growing wildfire danger, they say it’s a bit silly that federal land managers are suggesting use sticky party twine spray cans in nature.
The guidance has started to appear in recent weeks, with regional forestry officials and the New Mexico State Forestry Division airing public service announcements offering alternatives aimed at curbing man-made fires.
They used a model that echoed similar advice from the National Fire Protection Association and even American Red Cross chapters in other states.
“These are alternatives that children and young people can do instead of fireworks in their neighborhood or on their property. That way we’d like to keep things confined to your property and your neighborhood,” said State Forestry Division spokesman George Ducker. “We’re certainly not advocating that people go out into the forest and, you know, shoot Silly String.”
But if they do, the Forest Service has one request: leave no trace.
However people choose to celebrate, rules and regulations must be followed if they’re on National Forest Land, whether it’s July 4 or any other day, said John Winn, spokesperson for the federal agency.
“This includes, but is not limited to, restricting the use of fireworks, proper disposal of trash in trash cans, maintaining quiet hours, and cleaning up after camping or daytime activities,” did he declare.
Cleaning spray streamers falls into this category, he added.
While aerosol cans have been around since the 1970s, manufacturers keep their recipes secret. Typically, the string is made up of a polymer resin, a substance that causes the resin to foam, a solvent, some dye, and the propellant that forces the chemicals out of the box.
Los Angeles authorities decided to ban aerosol party streamers in 2004 on Hollywood Boulevard every Halloween because revelers used the empty cans as projectiles and many litter the streets and clog gutters.
Cities in Massachusetts and Alabama have also passed ordinances restricting the use of twine, signaling problems during special events. In one New York City, firefighters who participated in a parade complained that the string was damaging the paint on their trucks.
Rebecca Sobel of WildEarth Guardians said the party twine is just one of hundreds of seemingly benign products that permeate everyday life.
“We need to be more vigilant about chemicals in ‘everyday’ things,” she said. “Perhaps the Forest Service should have known better, but it’s also hard to know what chemicals certain products contain.”
She pointed to recent headlines about “eternal chemicals” found in fire-fighting foam and other common products, saying consumers have a responsibility to be aware of threats, but they can’t if regulators are not transparent or do not read labels themselves.
Some consumer product sites say party twine is not biodegradable. Although many cans are labeled as non-toxic, the twine can damage vinyl surfaces or the clear coat of vehicles.
The labels also suggest that if swallowed, medical attention may be required. This goes for humans and pets, as some of the ingredients may contain gastrointestinal irritants.
“All of this makes it unsuitable for use at our National Forest Recreation Sites,” says Madeleine Carey, WildEarth Guardians Southwest Conservation Manager. “Many seemingly fun party products like Silly String are extremely harmful to our forests and wildlife. Mylar balloons, noisemakers and glitter are also on the list.
The bottom line for state and federal forest managers is preventing human-caused wildfires, Ducker said.
While parts of the West saw record snowfall over the winter and enjoyed a wet spring, forest managers said it was uncertain whether the monsoon would ward off the danger of ‘fire. Because of this, the messaging will continue, Ducker said.
“All it takes is a few weeks of really hot, dry weather and it all dries up and just becomes fuel,” he said of the vegetation that sprouted in the spring.
Overall, more than 22,000 fires have burned nearly 1,000 square miles (2,590 square kilometers) in the United States since the start of the year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.