How well do you know Smokey Bear?
“Only you can prevent forest fires,” were practically my first words. Although Smokey Bear is an icon for all American children, my experience with him was more personal. My father just so happened to BE Smokey, at least once a year. Working in forestry, his team visited local elementary schools every year to promote conservation and wildfire prevention. And my dad wore the Smokey suit.
At least once a year, twice if he rode in the fall parade, I was cool by association.
Not only did I develop a fondness for Smokey, I learned to live his message. Smokey was everywhere in my house; from school supplies, to posters, to dolls, to sweatshirts. Smokey was a beloved mascot in our home, but he also taught us to respect the wilderness in which we lived. When people were careless with fire, Daddy had to go extinguish the flames and risk his life, just like any other firefighter. And the animals that we loved lost their homes. These concepts weighed heavy on my young mind.
While my experience with Smokey Bear may be somewhat unique, his message has touched children and adults for the past 70 years. In fact, according to a 2013 Ad Council tracking survey of U.S. adults, an astounding 96 percent know of Smokey Bear, 88 percent identified his picture and 70 percent could even recall his message of “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”
Although surveys indicate almost everyone in America knows of Smokey Bear, how many know his origin and his history? The tale is one of compassion and intrigue. Born in 1944 through a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, Smokey Bear was created by the Ad Council and advertising agency Foote Cone and Belding to promote awareness of wildfire prevention.
After the United States entered into World War II, a Japanese submarine fired on an oil field near Santa Barbara, Calif. and the Los Padres National Forest. Concern that further attacks could be disastrous to nearby forests escalated, and Americans’ focus on the prevention of forest fires increased. Soon, the War Advertising Council created posters and slogans promoting the cause, including “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.”
Smokey Bear’s existence only came to be because of the popularity of the 1942 Disney classic, “Bambi.” Disney allowed the forest-fire prevention campaign to use Bambi’s image on a 1944 poster, which was such a success it confirmed that an animal mascot for fire prevention would lead to success. But Bambi was only on loan, and the forest service needed an animal that could be used in the campaign long term. The first poster featuring Smokey Bear featured a bear pouring a bucket of water over a campfire.
Smokey quickly became a hit and by 1952 Congress voted to remove Smokey from the public domain and place him under control of the Secretary of Agriculture, which designated all royalties and fees be applied toward education and forest fire prevention.
His original slogan was, “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” In 1947 Smokey Bear took on the slogan for which he would become famous: “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
A Living Mascot
In the spring of 1950, forest fires destroyed New Mexico’s Capitan Mountains. Although forest rangers, Army soldiers, members of New Mexico’s State Game Department, Native American crews and civilians tried to gain control of the fire, it continued to rage as the wind pushed flames across lines into new areas. In the midst of the madness, a bear cub was spotted wandering near the fireline.
He was later discovered burnt and frightened in the top of a completely charred tree. Soldiers rescued the cub whose paws and hind legs were severely burned. Ultimately, the cub was flown to Santa Fe where his burns were treated and bandaged and he went to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Originally nicknamed “Hotfoot Teddy” by his rescuers, the cub was renamed Smokey and lived at the National Zoo for 26 years. The mascot received so many letters addressed to him that the United States Postal Service gave him his own ZIP code in 1964.
Smokey Bear celebrated his 70th birthday in 2014, and his legacy is the rescue of millions upon millions of forested acres. Although nine out of 10 of today’s forest fires are still, unfortunately, caused by carelessness, annual losses to forest fires have fallen from 22 million acres in 1944 to 6.7 million acres annually today.
Smokey Bear is no longer relegated to posters and school visits. The 70-year-old Smokey is featured on his own website, which educates visitors how they can help prevent wildfires. The site hosted 4.3 million U.S. visitors last year, an average of 360,000 each month. Likewise, Smokey’s Facebook page boasts more than 250,000 “likes.”
And remember, only you can prevent forest fires.