This month, American cultural icon and wildfire prevention spokesbear Smokey Bear celebrates 75 years of reminding people that only they can prevent wildfires.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, Smokey Bear was “born” on Aug. 9, 1944 when the Forest Service teamed up with the advertising council and decided on a bear as the symbol for a forest fire prevention campaign. At the time, World War II was still underway, and the country could not spare the men needed to fight forest fires in the American West.
Since most of those fires were caused by human negligence, a forest fire prevention campaign was developed. Disney Studios had allowed the Forest Service to borrow the animated deer Bambi as a messenger, but only for a year, so a bear was chosen as the new symbol. Artist Albert Staehle painted the first poster of a denim-clad bear wearing a forest ranger hat and pouring a bucket of water on a campfire with the caption: “Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.”
Real life icon
In the spring of 1950, a young black bear cub was trapped in a forest fire in New Mexico’s Capitan Mountains. The cub took refuge in a tree and survived the blaze, but his paws and hind legs were badly burned. He was named Smokey, and after his injuries were treated he went on to become the living representation of Smokey Bear. He lived at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. for 26 years. In 1975, Smokey “retired” from his fire prevention duties and another orphaned bear cub named Little Smokey became Smokey Bear II. The original Smokey died Nov. 9, 1976. His remains were returned to Capitan, New Mexico and buried in what is now known as Smokey Bear Historical Park. Little Smokey died Aug. 11, 1990.
What’s in a name?
Smokey Bear’s official name (without “the”) has not changed since 1944. However, a couple of tributes perpetuated the name of Smokey “the” Bear. In 1952, Eddy Arnold performed a song titled “Smokey the Bear.” The songwriters said they added “the” to the bear’s name to maintain the song’s rhythm. In 1955, a book in the Little Golden Books series was also titled “Smokey the Bear.”
A celebrity bear
The Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history. Soon after its introduction, Smokey Bear’s image appeared on posters, cards, comic books and postage stamps. He recorded radio ads with notable celebrities of the time, including Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and Roy Rogers. Two toy companies produced Smokey Bear dolls, with one version including a card that children could mail in to become Junior Forest Rangers. By 1955, a half-million kids had responded. Smokey Bear received so much mail that the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own zip code in 1964.
In 2008, Smokey Bear was reintroduced as a computer-generated image. Today, Smokey Bear has adapted to the Digital Age with his own website (https://smokeybear.com) and YouTube channel. He also has a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Current videos and ads pair Smokey Bear with celebrities like Al Roker, Jeff Foxworthy and Pharrell Williams — all helping him spread the wildfire prevention message.
Message changed – but stayed the same
In 1947, Smokey Bear’s slogan became the now famous “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!” The phrase was updated in 2001 to “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires.” This change reflected that wildfires occur in natural areas other than forests and clarified that Smokey Bear is promoting the prevention of unwanted and unplanned outdoor fires versus prescribed fires used for vegetation management.
Sadly, at times it seems like Smokey’s message has become lost in today’s information avalanche. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 88 percent of wildfires were still caused by humans in 2017. That is nearly the same number that Smokey Bear quoted in 1944.
On May 27, 2019, despite an abundance of spring precipitation, a campfire caused a 7-acre wildfire in the Pike National Forest, according to the Twitter account for the Pike & San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron & Comanche National Grasslands. It took firefighters about six days to fully contain the fire. Following the July 4 holiday, PSICC crews extinguished multiple campfires that were abandoned by campers, according to a July 7 tweet. (To make sure a campfire is completely extinguished, campers should drown it with water, stir it, drown it again, then touch it to see if it is cold.)
Smokey Bear has great information about preventing wildfires on his website. With wildfires becoming more frequent and destructive, there is probably no better birthday gift for Smokey Bear than to enjoy the great outdoors responsibly and keep wildfires from starting.
Connect with Smokey Bear:
Children can still write letters to Smokey Bear at Smokey Bear, Washington D.C. 20252.
FFPD contact information
Facebook: Falcon Fire Department
This is the original Smokey Bear poster from 1944, courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service website.The original artist was Albert Staehle.