Walla Walla resident Jimmye Turner has always found a way to infuse artwork into his demanding job as a firefighter.
Employed by the U.S. Forest Service since 1983, Turner has made hundreds of comic strips, illustrated five children’s books and created coloring book pages that focus on forest fire prevention.
He recently sent in more illustrations for a new book, which will be about the adventures of a turtle and a firefighter. After hatching from his egg on the edge of a fire, the turtle is rescued by the firefighter.
Some of his other book titles include “Sammy’s Quest to Save the West,” and “Knowing When to Call 911.”
His two main comic strips include “Digger Bear” and “Friends of the Forest,” both of which follow a group of animals who teach lessons about fire prevention and wildlife.
“There’s a whole series of characters in ‘Digger Bear,’” he said. “I have something like 16 characters that appear regularly or guest appear now and then. But the four main characters are Digger Bear, Ember Bear, Johnson Bear and Quilly — a porcupine — who work for the Forest Service as firefighters.”
The Digger Bear comic strip wasn’t created until the early 2000s, but Turner’s cartoon-making career stretches back to 1987, when he first started out as a fire prevention specialist. The tradition began began when he was tasked with creating forest fire action plans.
“Every day the fire team puts out an action plan, which plans out what we’re going to do today on the fire and what’s going on,” he said. “As the information officer for a team, I would put little comic strips in there, kidding the firefighters and making jokes about them, along with my page of information. When you’re fighting a forest fire, you can be pretty easily cut off from the news.”
The cartoons were an instant hit among the other Forest Service staff.
Turner began reaching an even wider audience when one of his friends who worked for the Region 6 Forest Service asked if he could make a few cartoons for the regional newsletter. After receiving even more positive feedback, his comics began appearing in every newsletter.
What began as a way to inform firefighters about the status of a fire blossomed into a prolific comic career that focuses on fire-prevention techniques.
Turner also works closely with Walla Walla schools, using his art as a way to teach kids important lessons about fire prevention. Tasked with teaching school children of all ages from preschool to high school, he began drawing pictures on the blackboard to illustrate his points.
“I noticed while I was drawing this stuff, the room was absolutely silent,” he said. “The kids were all laser-focused on the pictures I was drawing. I thought well, huh. This is a valuable tool. And after that, I began drawing different animal characters and talking about how fire will affect this animal’s habitat versus that animal’s habitat, and it became very interesting to the kids.
“Particularly with classes of small kids, I could draw lessons on a piece of paper, tear it off and leave it with them and hang it on the wall, and every time they see that picture it reminds them of the lessons I taught them. So drawing became a very useful tool for teaching fire prevention.”
Since he was 3 years old, Turner has always loved drawing and reading comics. And with a little help from Digger Bear, he has used those interests to share important messages with generations of children.