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How it happened: The history of our favorite fire-preventing Smokey Bear

You may have driven your RV past his famous image. You’ve probably known him since you were a child. I’m talking about Smokey Bear, the iconic character dressed in jeans and sporting that distinctive ranger’s hat. For more than 70 years, Smokey Bear has reminded campers: “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.”

Fighting fire with an ad campaign

In 1944, Europe and areas in the Pacific were still active fronts in World War II. Because so many U.S. citizens were involved in overseas combat, the U.S. Forest Service lacked the manpower to fight forest fires here at home. The head of the Forest Service at that time, Lyle F. Watts, decided to attack the wildfire problem by educating the public about their role in fire prevention. Watts invited the Ad Council to join the Forest Service in this new ad campaign.

Disney lends a hand

Watts and his cohorts soon realized that they needed a symbol or character to represent their fire prevention campaign. A forest animal would be ideal. The Disney Studios offered one of their characters to be the “face” of the fire prevention plan. The movie, Bambi, enjoyed widespread popularity at the time, so the deer Bambi represented the original ad campaign—but Disney’s licensing contract lasted just one year.

A bear joins the firefight

Seeing an overwhelmingly successful first year, Watts and his team chose a bear to replace Bambi. Artist Albert Staehle painted the first Smokey Bear poster. In it, Smokey douses a fire with water. The poster’s tag line? “Smokey says– Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!”

A historic Smokey the Bear poster
Photo Credit: Frontline Wildfire

It wasn’t long before more posters of Smokey appeared. The bear gained widespread popularity. Soon Smokey Bear was featured on everything from comic books to toys. He was an undisputed success.

A real Smokey Bear

In 1950, a wildfire burned in New Mexico’s Capitan Mountains. Firefighters there found a young bear cub clinging to a tree branch. Firefighters presumed the cub climbed the tree to escape the raging fire. The little bear was alive, but severely burned. Firefighters rescued the cub and aptly named him Smokey.

News of a real Smokey Bear soon spread across the country. When Smokey had sufficiently recovered from his ordeal, he was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he continued to play a role in educating people about fire prevention. When the real Smokey Bear died, his body was taken back to the Capitan Mountains for burial in the State Historical Park.

Today’s Smokey Bear

Other Smokey Bear facts

  • The Smokey Bear campaign is the longest-running Public Service Advertisement campaign in U.S. history.
  • In 1953, the Ideal Toy Company made a Smokey Bear doll. Included with the doll was a card that when mailed back gave children an official “Junior Forest Ranger” identification card. Within two years, over half a million kids had applied and received the unofficial honor.
  • Since its development in the 1940s, it’s estimated that the Smokey Bear ad campaign has reduced the number of acres lost to wildfires by 15.5 million annually.
  • Smokey does not have a middle name. (It’s Smokey Bear. Not Smokey “The” Bear.) A song about the forest icon added “The” to his name in order to make the lyrics and melody sync better. You can listen to the full version below.

 

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Dave Dobesh
1 month ago

Ed Smith is the veterinarian that treated Smokey Bear. His grand daughter, Kathy Dobesh and her husband are vets at the Smith Veterinarian Hospital in Santa Fe NM that Ed founded. Some pictures of Ed and Smokey…. https://svh-nm.com/about-us/our-history

Sherry
1 month ago

I have been keeping the upcoming camping vacation more real for my 8 year old grandson by sending him safety letter. Safety while hiking, in the RV, while driving, doing chores etc. This month’s topic is going to be “safety at the campsite”. It will include campfire safety. He signs the letters as they are “legal” documents and includes his suggestions on how to be safe. Today’s 8 year olds are more sophisticated but I am still going to send him this article as an example of a successful children’s campaign that has helped keep millions of campers and zillions of trees safe for all to love and enjoy. Thank you. I would highly recommend going to the museum as well. We thought we would just stop for lunch and spent the rest of the day.

Drew
1 month ago

Enjoyed this piece of Americana- thank you!

Angela Klinger
1 month ago

I was fortunate as a little girl that I was able to see Smokey Bear at the Washington DC zoo. Now that we are full timers, I got to see the Smokey Bear Museum in Capitan, NM. Visiting Smokey and his girlfriend Goldie’s grave, brought back childhood memories and tears to my eyes.

Joan Wolfsen
1 month ago

I love Smokey Bear. A good friend and then neighbor, Clint Davis, worked on the Smokey Bear project back in the 40’s in Washington DC. My folks saw the early concepts including the Disney one. Clint made sure that I got one of the first Smokey the Bear “dolls” made which I still have (somewhat worn). Clint was a darling bear of a man himself. Well over 6 feet with a southern drawl. He could have been the image for Smokey
https://foresthistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/SBC_29_Apr_1963.pdf

Tom Hosack
1 month ago

How many have this verse stuck in their head;

Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear.
Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air.
He can find a fire before it starts to flame.
That’s why they call him Smokey,
That was how he got his name.

Tommy Molnar
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Hosack

I totally agree Tom. I just sang that part of the song for my wife to ‘enjoy’ and she said it was sad that I knew that. C’mon, all us kids learned that song – and I grew up in Chicago!
Somewhere along the line they eliminated “the” from Smokey’s name, so now he’s Smokey Bear and not Smokey THE Bear. PC before PC gained traction.

chris
1 month ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

If you read the whole article you’d know it has nothing to do with PC.

Last edited 1 month ago by chris
Tom Hosack
1 month ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

As a kid I wore out the 45 version of the song. Listened to it over and over.

chris
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Hosack

Except it’s not ‘the’ bear. It’s just Smokey Bear. Suppose anyone ever made a song about Mickey the Mouse?

Last edited 1 month ago by chris