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!”
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
- Smokey has his own Facebook page and YouTube channel, along with his own Twitter feed and Instagram account.
- The website for Smokey Bear is www.smokeybear.com.
- Children can still write an actual letter to the loveable bear. Just use the zip code: 20252. That’s right! Smokey has his own zip code.
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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