Iconic Smokey Bear Turns 70!
August 9 is the 70th birthday of one of the most famous fictional animals in America. Smokey Bear was created in 1944 as spokesbear for a national forest fire prevention campaign, and he’s still going strong. In celebration of Smokey’s birthday, we’re looking back on his history, his real-life counterpart and why his message is still important.
In spring 1950, after a major forest fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, firefighters found a bear cub in a charred tree with burns to his paws and hind legs. When the state fish and game department had the cub flown to Santa Fe for veterinary care, the story basically went viral: It was picked up by national news agencies, and people from all over the country wrote and called to find out how the cub was doing. At first called "Hot Foot Teddy," the cub’s name was changed when people realized that there was a job opening he was perfect for: as the living symbol of Smokey Bear, a character who was teaching Americans how to prevent fires like the one that had injured him.
The newly renamed Smokey was offered a home at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., but it wasn’t easy to get him there. When the commercial airlines couldn’t be persuaded to let him travel in the passenger compartment or have a human accompany him in the baggage section, the Piper Aircraft company came to the rescue, providing a small plane painted with Smokey’s name and an illustration of him with his arm in a sling and wearing his iconic hat. After an overnight stop at the Saint Louis Zoo, Smokey was greeted by crowds of fans and media in Washington on June 27, 1950.
Smokey became so popular that he was given his own ZIP code for the 13,000 letters he received each week and had three full-time assistants to answer them. He dined on trout, bluefish and peanut butter sandwiches, and in 1962, the zoo got him a mate, a female named Goldie, who arrived with much fanfare, including a motorcycle escort and giant wedding ring. Sadly, they never had offspring, although in 1971, an orphaned cub named Little Smokey was brought in to succeed the famous bear.
Smokey retired in 1975 when he was 25 years old. In bear years, that’s roughly the federal mandatory retirement age of 70, and he was given a membership card for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees. Overshadowed at that point by the famous pair of giant pandas that had arrived at the zoo in 1972, Smokey lived out his final days there until his death on November 9, 1976. Many newspapers ran obituaries. The Washington Post obituary, headlined "S. Bear, Firefighter," read in part:
Although he had no formal schooling, Mr. Bear was accepted into the Park Service shortly after his arrival in Washington, and remained with that agency until his retirement a year ago this month. … Like many Americans on a fixed income, Mr. Bear found that he did not have enough money to retire to a specially constructed grotto in New Mexico, as he had originally planned. Instead, he moved to a cage in the zoo next door to the cage he had occupied for years.
Mr. Bear was married in 1962 to the former Goldie Bear, who was not a blood relation, despite the similarity of last names.
Smokey was buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park in his hometown of Capitan, NM.
History of a Symbol
Smokey actually wasn’t the first spokesanimal for forest fire prevention: Walt Disney’s Bambi, a fictional forest fire survivor, was used on a poster in 1944. But the studio gave permission to use the character for only one year, so a replacement needed to be created.
Bambi’s probably kicking himself now that he lost the job, because Smokey became the centerpiece of the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history, from the first poster depicting him pouring a bucket of water on a campfire to his latest social media campaign, where he rewards people with a bear hug for their fire prevention efforts.
His appearance has changed with fashions in illustration, but he’s still one of the most recognizable fictional characters ever. Surveys show that 96 percent of American adults recognize him. And Smokey has definitely kept up with the times to communicate his message: He has 180,000 Facebook fans, 22,000 Twitter followers and more than 620,000 views on YouTube.
By the way, while readers of a certain age might find it irresistible to call him "Smokey the Bear" — doing so became common after a 1952 song was released that included the extra word to fit the song’s rhythm — his proper name is and has always been Smokey Bear, without the "the."
What Smokey Wants You to Do
Readers of a certain age may also be surprised to learn that Smokey’s slogan is no longer "Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires." The slogan has undergone revisions over the years and is now "Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires."
The new slogan is important because forests are not the only places where you need to be aware of fire risk. "There might not be any trees around for miles in places where you could have devastating wildfires that are caused by accidental human starts," says Acting National Fire Prevention Coordinator Fred J. Hernandez of the U.S. Forest Service.
Grasslands, brush and areas around homes and buildings and on the sides of highways may not seem like Smokey Bear habitat, but fires can start in those places, too. And although people tend to think that wildfires are started by lightning, 80 percent were caused by people in 2013 — and some years that statistic is closer to 90 percent, Hernandez says.
You may think you’ll never be the culprit because you know better than to throw a cigarette butt out the window or leave a campfire burning, but fires can start when you’re doing things that, from your point of view, have nothing to do with fire.
"A lot of people don’t understand they can start fires with a lawn mower, or that if they park in high grass, their catalytic converter is hot enough to start a fire," Hernandez says. "If you pull over on the side of the highway for a problem with your vehicle or to make a phone call, if it’s hot and dry and there’s tall grass, that can start a fire."
There are other ways you can start a fire with your vehicle and be unaware of it. Chains dragging from a trailer tow can cause sparks, and overheated brakes can eject hot pieces of metal and brake pad. "Sometimes we’ll find five or six fires down a highway corridor, and the person who started them doesn’t even know [he or she] started them," he says.
And even putting out that campfire may not be as easy as you think. "That’s still a big problem," Hernandez says. "We still find fires that are left hot in Forest Service campgrounds. We ask folks to drown, stir down and then feel." If it’s not cool enough to put your hand in the remains, it’s hot enough to pose a risk.
Fire’s Role in Nature
The official approach to dealing with fire on natural lands has changed over the years. We now know that fire is an important part of many ecosystems — they’ve evolved to burn periodically and regenerate. What’s more, putting out every single fire can result in a buildup of fuel that makes future fires more severe. "We did such a good job of putting fires out for a hundred years that it’s contributing to the issues we’re having now with extreme wildfires," Hernandez explains.
So naturally occurring wildfires are handled differently from how they used to be. "We have a thought-out process to try to allow fire to play a natural role where it can, where it doesn’t endanger the public or infrastructure," he says. If conditions are deemed safe and the fire is judged to be doing some good on the land, it may be allowed to burn.
But Smokey’s message to people remains the same, because nothing has changed when it comes to the fires that start from human activity. "We understand that fire is a valuable component to a healthy ecosystem, but it shouldn’t confuse the fire prevention message," Hernandez says, "because those accidental human starts — we put them all out."