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Reflections from History and Faith

by Jeff Olson

How many of us can remember growing up seeing a big burly bear on a poster, television screen, or in a periodical reminding us to prevent forest fires? I suspect that just about all of us have some memories of that special bear. This week, we celebrate the 75th birthday of America’s most famous bear, Smokey Bear.

Smokey’s association with fire prevention began not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the spring of 1942, Japanese submarines surfaced near the coast of Santa Barbara, California and fired shells that exploded on an oil field very close to the Los Padres National Forest. From this incident grew the concern that more attacks might bring a large-scale loss of life and property, including disastrous forest fires. To rally Americans and convince them that it would help win the war, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program with the help of the War Advertising Council and the Association of State Foresters. Together they created posters and slogans to get the message out. In a situation of perfect timing, that same year forests and their inhabitants were featured in Walt Disney’s popular motion picture, “Bambi.” Disney allowed the CFFP program to use the film’s characters on a 1944 poster. The “Bambi” poster proved the success of using an animal as a fire prevention symbol. However, since Disney had loaned the characters to the campaign for only one year, the CFFP would have to find or create their own symbol.

The creation of Smokey Bear was authorized by the Forest Service 75 years ago this week, August 9, 1944, and the first poster was delivered just two months later. It was illustrated by Albert Staehle and depicted Smokey wearing jeans and a campaign hat pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. The message underneath read, “Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” In 1947, the slogan which would be associated with Smokey Bear for more than five decades was coined: “Remember … only YOU can prevent forest fires.” In 1949, Rudolph “Rudy” Wendelin became the full-time artist for the Smokey Bear campaign and “caretaker of the Smokey Bear image” until his retirement in 1973.

Smokey, however, was not just an image on a poster. He came to be a living symbol of fire prevention. In May 1950, an American Black Bear cub was caught in the Capitan Gap Fire on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. The cub climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs were burned. Soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas who had come to help fight the fire discovered the bear cub and brought him back to the camp. Originally named “Hotfoot Teddy,” he was nursed back to health by New Mexico game warden Ray Bell, his daughter Judy, and veterinarian Edwin Smith. The Forest Service saw in this orphaned cub the opportunity to personify the emblem of its fire-prevention efforts.

Re-named “Smokey,” he was flown to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. where he lived for 26 years. He received millions of visitors and so many letters that in 1964 the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own ZIP code (20252). Jackson Weaver, a noted radio personality of Washington, D.C. provided the original “Voice” of Smokey Bear. In 1971, when Smokey and his mate “Goldie” (introduced in 1961) had not produced any young, the Zoo added “Little Smokey,” another orphaned bear cub from the Lincoln National Forest, to their cage announcing that the pair had “adopted” this cub. On May 2, 1975, Smokey Bear officially “retired” from his role as living mascot, and the title “Smokey Bear II” was bestowed upon Little Smokey in an official ceremony.

On November 9, 1976, the first Smokey passed away. His remains were returned to Capitan, New Mexico where he is buried at what is now the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The plaque at his grave reads, “This is the resting place of the first living Smokey Bear…the living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation.” Little Smokey died in August 1990.

Today, Smokey Bear still holds his place as an enduring icon of American culture, having stirred our conscience to a greater awareness and concern for our nation’s forests and grasslands. He has helped to reduce areas burned by wildfires from 22 million acres in 1944 to an average of 6.7 million annually today. In 2001, Smokey’s message was changed to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”

The Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history, educating generations of Americans about their role in preventing wildfires. For 75 years Smokey Bear has empowered people to make a difference, and his timeless message of personal responsibility continues to be as relevant and urgent today as it was in 1944.

Happy Birthday, Smokey!

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