On Aug. 9, 1944, Smokey Bear was born.
More accurately, that’s when he was authorized by the U.S. Forest Service to be used in an advertising campaign addressing wildfire concerns during World War II. Now, 75 years later, the bear is still around in what is the longest public service advertising campaign in U.S. history.
His was not the first face of the campaign. Disney’s Bambi had been featured on posters with the words “Please Mister, Don’t Be Careless” during a yearlong lease of the character. A forest fire figures prominently near the beginning of the 1942 animated Disney classic.
In the 1940s, an average of 30 million acres burned every year. A wartime concern was that fires might be started by the enemy attacking the U.S. mainland.
In spring 1942, Japanese submarines shelled an oil field near Santa Barbara, close to Los Padres National Forest. Officials realized the threat. A large forest fire could be devastating — especially since most of the men trained to fight such fires were enlisted in the war effort.
Renowned artist Albert Staehle created Smokey Bear for the Forest Service. The debut poster featured a bear with a wide-brim forest ranger hat standing on two legs pouring water on a fire. The poster reads “Smokey says — Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!” Staehle’s concept won out over another forest critter that had been suggested — a raccoon.
The bear’s words were later updated to the now familiar “Remember ... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In 1952, Forest Service artist Rudy Wendelin took over drawing Smokey for the posters.
In 1950, Smokey jumped from posters to real life. During spring of that year, a fast-moving wildfire ignited by carelessness eventually burned 18,000 acres in the Capitan Mountains of the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico.
Crews fighting the fire received reports of a bear cub near the fire line. A firestorm pinned down firefighters in a rock overhang. When they emerged, the firefighters rescued the bear from a burned tree. The 3-month-old cub had burned front paws and hind legs, and was taken home by one of the ranchers.
Ranger Ray Bell of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish heard of the bear at the rancher’s home. He retrieved the cub, dubbed “Hotfoot Teddy,” and the animal was sent on a plane for treatment in Santa Fe. The story was picked up by the United Press and Associated Press, and newspapers nationwide carried the story.
The bear recovered and was offered to the Forest Service under the condition he could only be used for public relations in conservation and fire prevention. Soon, the cub was at a new home in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. His name was changed to Smokey Bear, and he served as a living symbol of the original posters.
Knickerbocker Toy Company offered a Smokey Bear doll, and with it a card with an invitation to become a Junior Forest Ranger. By 1955, a half million cards had been filled out and returned by mail to the company. Smokey Bear was so popular, Congress removed Smokey from the public domain, placing him under the control of the secretary of agriculture with royalties and fees earmarked for wildfire prevention education. In the 1960s, a comic book biography of “The True Story of Smokey Bear” was published.
The “voice” of Smokey was heard in radio advertisements with celebrities such as Bing Crosby and Roy Rogers. Smokey Bear received so many letters the post office gave him his own ZIP code. The only other single entity ZIP code is the president at the White House.
Smokey even had a song written about him. In 1952, Jack Rollins, a native of Keyser, wrote the lyrics for “Smokey the Bear” with music by Steve Nelson. To maintain the song’s rhythm, “the” was added to the name, leading to the mascot becoming known popularly as Smokey the Bear. Officially, his name remains Smokey Bear.
The rescued cub that became Smokey Bear died on Nov. 9, 1976, at age 26. He was returned to Lincoln National Forest in Capitan, where his grave became the site of Smokey Bear Historical Park. An orphaned cub previously known as Little Smokey was designated as Smokey Bear II in an official ceremony. This bear died on Aug. 11, 1990.
The Forest Service no longer maintains the same aggressive policy of wildfire prevention as in the past. The view now is that fire is a natural occurrence, and that over-prevention can leave forests with more fuel to burn when a fire occurs. Most of today’s experts believe that controlled burns are an effective balance for the health of forests.
But Smokey Bear is still a symbol of conservation and fire prevention. In 2001, his catchphrase was changed to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” to distinguish between unplanned natural fires versus prescribed fires.
In 2008, Smokey Bear was re-imagined for the 21st century as a computer-generated image. He has a Facebook page, a YouTube following and his own website at smokeybear.com.