He’s bare-chested, barefoot and, with a five-word vocabulary, barely a conversationalist.
But at age 70, the fire-fighting star of America’s longest-running public service ad campaign remains all bear, and bullish on prospects for achieving his goal — preventing wildfires.
This month marks the 70th birthday of the forest-fire-prevention ad campaign that spawned Smokey Bear, one of the best-known characters in American popular culture. According to a 2012 survey by the Ad Council, 96 percent of American adults said they are familiar with the fire-fighting bear, and most could recite Smokey’s five-word tag line: “Only you can prevent wildfires!” (In his youth, before the more inclusive “wildfires” replaced forest fires in firefighting vernacular, Smokey voiced a six-word slogan: “Only you can prevent forest fires!”)
Over the decades, Smokey’s words, along with the nonverbal messages appearing on posters featuring Smokey’s image, have urged those venturing into forests and rangelands to thoroughly douse their campfires, crush and extinguish their cigarette butts and hold used matches until they are cold to the touch before discarding. Gradually, Smokey’s message sank in.
“When the forest-fire-prevention ad campaign began in August of 1944, 30 million to 40 million acres of forest was lost to wildfires in America in an average year,” said Bob Beanblossom, a West Virginia parks district administrator for the Division of Natural Resources who started his DNR career in the 1970s as a forest ranger in Mingo County. “Today, despite the huge increase in the number of people, wildfires burn an average of 5- to 8-million acres annually. I’d say it’s been a highly successful campaign.”
Beanblossom credits Smokey with playing a role in his decision to join the DNR as a fire-fighting forest ranger in 1973.
“In the summer of 1964, I sent off for a Smokey Bear Junior Forest Ranger kit,” he recalled. “It included a little gold badge, a letter from Smokey and a membership card on which you signed your name and promised you would do your part to prevent forest fires. That was it for me. That’s what got me started.”
The U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council released their first Smokey Bear fire-prevention poster in August 1944. It featured a painting of a jeans-clad bear with a National Park Service-style ranger’s hat dousing a campfire with a large bucket of water, and the words “Smokey says —.care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!”
Before Smokey made his debut in 1944, the ad campaign briefly featured a poster using Walt Disney’s orphaned deer character, Bambi, in its forest-fire-prevention campaign.
Preceding both Smokey and Bambi in the fire-prevention campaign was an anti-Axis World War II poster featuring caricatures of Hitler and Tojo, with a burning American forest in the background and the words “Our carelessness, their secret weapon” in the foreground.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but the Japanese tried to start forest fires in the Western states during World War II,” Beanblossom said. In one such attack, a Japanese submarine surfaced just off a coastal oil field near Santa Barbara, California, in February 1942, and fired a dozen or more rounds from its deck gun in an attempt to set it ablaze.
In 1950, several years after the Smokey character debuted, a wildfire swept through the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. As firefighters extinguished smoldering embers in a clearing after the 16,000-acre fire died down, they found a badly singed black bear in a clearing. New Mexico Fish and Game Officer Ray Bell, a pilot, flew the six-week-old cub to a veterinarian in Santa Fe, who treated its injuries. Bell and his family, who initially named the bear “Hot Foot Teddy,” nursed the cub back to health in their home.
“It was Ray Bell who saw that it could be an advantageous thing to have this bear cub become a real, live symbol for the damage caused by forest fires,” said Beanblossom. Forest Service officials eventually agreed and, by the end of 1950, Hot Foot Teddy became Smokey, and Smokey became the star attraction in Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo, where he grew into a 400-pound adult, and lived to the ripe old bear age of 26.
“His burial site is in Smokey Bear State Park, in Capitan, New Mexico,” said Beanblossom, who has visited the fire-prevention icon’s final resting place.
Because of a musical jingle written in 1952, the fire-prevention mascot is referred to by many as “Smokey the Bear,” as opposed to the official “Smokey Bear.” To maintain the correct rhythm for the song, the writers added a “the” between “Smokey” and “Bear.”
During his early years with the DNR, Beanblossom donned an official Smokey Bear costume to spread the fire-prevention word at fairs, festivals and parades.
“There were very strict guidelines about how Smokey is supposed to be portrayed, like you can’t speak while in costume or clown around,” he recalled. “The head piece is solid plastic, and quite heavy. I remember riding in a parade when my glasses started slipping off, and I thought I could lean forward and scoot them back in place. Instead, my nose got hooked under the mouthpiece and I had to spend the rest of the parade looking at my belt buckle.”
The official Smokey costume also is good at trapping body heat, making it extremely uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time.
“Generally speaking, Smokey would have to take a break every 15 or 20 minutes,” Beanblossom said, “so I could cool off a little somewhere out of sight.”
On one occasion, Beanblossom’s wife volunteered to portray Smokey during a parade. “After the parade ended and we were waiting for traffic to clear, an attractive lady walked up to me and started to talk, while Smokey sat there and did a slow burn,” he recalled.
These days, Smokey generates enough fan mail to warrant his own ZIP code (20252). He maintains a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, and his baritone voice is provided by actor Sam Elliott, the narrator who helped out The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” and whose voice delivers the message in Dodge Ram and Coors beer commercials.
“After 70 years, he’s still going strong,” said Beanblossom. “I think he’s a phenomenal success story.”
Reach Rick Steelhammer at email@example.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.