August 8, 2014

Firefighters work to suppress the Rim Fire, which burned for two months starting in August 2013.     Photo: Mike McMillan/USFS

Hunter Charged with Starting Rim Fire

The third largest in California's history

The 2013 Rim Fire, which burned through more than 250,000 acres near the western border of Yosemite National Park, allegedly began as a small fire that Keith Matthew Emerald started while hunting deer. The 32-year-old California resident has been charged on four counts with starting the third-largest fire in California's history, including lying to a federal agent and ignoring fire restrictions at the time.

Emerald had been rescued from a remote area of the Stanislaus National Forest about an hour after the fire was first reported to authorities. Investigators interviewed him multiple times and say that he alternated between admitting to and denying starting the fire—one time, he suggested that marijuana growers in the area may have started it.

However, in a signed affidavit, Emerald wrote that he'd started a campfire while bow-hunting deer. "After cooking a meal and burning the rest of my trash, some embers were blown up the hill and caught the brush on fire. The terrain was almost vertical, so I … couldn't put it out." It grew to a blaze that raged for two months and cost $125 million to fight.

This news comes at the same time as an announcement from the U.S. Forest Service that, for the seventh time in 12 years, we're likely to use up our annual firefighting budget by the end of August. That means the USFS will have to dip into funds reserved for reducing the risk of fires. Lawmakers increasingly agree that our funding model for fighting fires is broken. Because it's often not a person responsible for starting these fires, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told the Associated Press that large blazes must be treated like other natural disasters.

As for Emerald, there's no court date yet for his arraignment. Suspects charged with starting fires have received the death penalty before, but since no one died in the Rim Fire and what Emerald did is not considered arson, his penalty will be nowhere near as harsh. Still, "The Rim Fire … caused tremendous economic and environmental harm," U.S. attorney Benjamin Wagner said. When he does go to court, Emerald faces a maximum five years in prison and $250,000 fine.

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While most Hawaiians crammed into stores to stock up on emergency supplies, surfers greeted the first of two tropical storms from the islands' beaches.     Photo: Christian Colmer/ThinkStock

Hawaiian Storms Mean Gnarly Surf

First of two tropical cyclones hits today

Hawaii hasn't seen a tropical storm for 22 years, but beginning today, the islands are facing the gale forces of not one but two storms, with the second at hurricane status. The event is historic, not just because the Big Island hasn't been hit by a storm—let alone a hurricane—from the east since 1958, but also because the the tropical cyclones are expected to bring prime surfing conditions in addition to destruction.

Hurricane Iselle (downgraded to a tropical storm at 11 p.m. Thursday) and its 60 mph winds made landfall this morning with enough strength to cut off electricity to upwards of 20,000 customers—including a geothermal plant that released poisonous gases into the air after the power failure. The National Weather Service issued a statewide flash-flood watch, schools and government offices closed for the day, and 1,200 people were evacuated to Red Cross shelters at elevation. Even with an early morning earthquake, no deaths or injuries have been reported.

"We still have not seen the full force or full front of the storm on the Big Island even though it's been downgraded to a tropical storm," Andrew Jackson, a spokesman for Hawaii's Department of Defense, told the Wall Street Journal on Friday. Tropical storms are rare in the islands because hurricanes gain steam in warm water, and the water surrounding the islands is cool.

While 43,000 Hilo residents took shelter in their homes, surfers waved the storm in with a beachside greeting. Scott Murray, owner of Hilo Surfboard Co., told CNN that "residents were more optimistic for good surf than concerned about damage and flooding." Waves are expected to reach up to 12 feet on the north shore today and degrade through Tuesday.

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Orphaned black bear cub "Little Smokey" was the live representation of Smokey Bear from 1975 until his death in 1990.     Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Happy Birthday, Smokey!

America's favorite bear turns 70 on Saturday

Smokey Bear turns 70 on Saturday, August 9. And, no, he doesn’t want candles on his cake.

The U.S. Forest Service created the Smokey Bear character in 1944 to inspire education and prevention of forest fires in the face of World War II, when most able-bodied men were drafted and could not be spared to fight forest fires in America.

In May 1950, a five-pound North American black bear cub was rescued from a 17,000-acre forest fire near Capitan, New Mexico. The badly burned cub quickly became the "living" Smokey Bear, spending the remainder of his life at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

According to the Ad Council, 96 percent of Americans recognize the blue-jean-wearing Smokey illustration and his message, "Only you can prevent forest fires." He's the star of the longest-running public service announcement campaign in American history.

"Smokey's message of personal empowerment of people in that they can play a role in saving the forest is very consistent," Peggy Conlon, the president and CEO of the Ad Council, told USA Today. "He has been around for generations; everyone knows and loves him."

That includes Sam Elliot, who has been the voice of Smokey Bear since 2008. Tomorrow, The Big Lebowski actor will celebrate not only Smokey’s birthday but also his own. "August 9, 1944—that was the same date and the same year they started this campaign," Elliot told NPR. "Everywhere you went in those days, at the trailhead there was this iconic vision; it was either a statue or some bear carved into a board."

Smokey has certainly evolved since then, but his image remains much the same. Here's a look through the decades:

1940s

1950s

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

2010s

Photos courtesy of the Ad Council and USDA.

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Your worst scuba-diving nightmare.     Photo: Venson Kuchipudi/Flickr

Shark Attack on Camera

But no one gets hurt

Thanks to a group of engineers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of the world's oceans, we can all have a more accurate idea of what it might be like to experience an open-water attack from a great white shark. Hooray?

Last summer, WHOI researchers deployed a camera-laden, remote-controlled underwater vehicle called the REMUS SharkCam near Mexico's Guadalupe Island. The REMUS is shaped like a torpedo and weighs 100 pounds. Its six cameras, affixed in the front and on the rear, give researchers a unique opportunity to observe wild marine life from multiple vantage points.

The WHOI team was monitoring the behavior of great whites for a Shark Week–related project when their camera suddenly came under attack. The results are fascinating—and terrifying.

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