Fire Prevention - Smokey Bear

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Smokey Bear is the national symbol for Wildfire Prevention. The vision for a national fire prevention program was conceived in the Spring of 1942 during World War II. Several shells were shot from an enemy submarine into an oil refinery near the Los Padres National Forest.  With the importance of wood to the war effort, the threat to protecting the forests from unintentional wildfire as well as deliberate wildfire became real. The Wartime Advertising Council and the Forest Service joined forces to form the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) Program. 

While looking for an appropriate symbol, the program borrowed Bambi from Walt Disney. The bear image, known as Smokey, was launched on August 9, 1944. Smokey was named after “Smokey” Joe Martin the assistant Chief of the New York City Fire Department. Albert Staehle was asked to paint the first picture of Smokey Bear.  Later artists included Rudy Wendelin and Harry Rossoll (Southern Region Forest Service employee). Jackson Weaver became the voice of Smokey Bear, followed by Gene Moss. Later during 1950, when a real bear cub was found singed by a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico and nursed back to health by a rancher, forest rangers, game wardens, Veterinarian Edwin Smith and Judy Bell, state game warden Ray Bell’s daughter, Smokey made his debut at the Washington DC Zoo. He lived in the Zoo until his death in 1976. With his popularity Smokey was issued his own private zip code and books such as Smokey Bear 20252: A Biography by William C. Lawter, Jr. and The Guardian of the Forest: A History of the Smokey Bear Program by Ellen Earnhardt Morrison have been written about Smokey's life and related popular culture.

Learn more about Smokey's history

August 9, 2004 marked the 60th Birthday of Smokey Bear. For 60 years Smokey’s simple message of “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires” has achieved world recognition. The slogan was modified in 2002 to be “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires” recognizing that grass and brush fires are equally as threatening and also to emphasize that prescribed fires are acceptable and beneficial. Smokey is recognized as the most successful, longest running public service campaign in the nation. Despite efforts of some to change his message or twist his words, Smokey has remained a consistent, staunch advocate for prevention of carelessly caused wildfires.

Essential information to navigate the outdoors with wildfire safety in mind

Building a campfire can be a lot of fun. But be sure to keep safety in mind before, during, and after you've built it. Smokey Bear's campfire safety guide will help keep you, and others, safe when cooking and camping outdoors.

How to Pick Your Spot

Follow these steps when picking your burning site to promote wildfire safety:

  • DO NOT build a fire at a site in hazardous, dry conditions. DO NOT build a fire if the campground, area, or event rules prohibit campfires.
  • FIND OUT if the campground has an existing fire ring or fire pit.
  • If there is not an existing fire pit, and pits are allowed, look for a site that is at least fifteen feet away from tent walls, shrubs, trees or other flammable objects. Also beware of low-hanging branches overhead.

Note: in some areas digging pits are not allowed because of archaeological or other concerns. Find out the rules in your area please.

Dig A Pit

Whether building a campfire pit yourself, or preparing a pit that you found on your campsite, there are some safety tips you should follow.

Building Your Campfire Pit from Scratch

Some campsites have unsuitable pits or may not offer pre-made pits at all. If this is the case:

  • Choose a spot that's downwind protected from wind gusts, and at least 15 feet from your tent and gear.
  • Clear a 10-foot diameter area around the site. Remove any grass, twigs, leaves and firewood. Also make sure there aren't any tree limbs or flammable objects hanging overhead.
  • Dig a pit in the dirt, about a foot deep.
  • Circle the pit with rocks.
  • Your campfire pit is built and ready for preparation!

Preparing Your Campfire Pit:
Before you start your campfire, you need to prepare your pit.

  • Fill the pit with small pieces of dry wood; never rip or cut branches from living trees.
  • Place your unused firewood upwind and away from the fire.
  • Keep a bucket of water and a shovel nearby.

How to Build a Campfire

Now that you have prepared your pit, it's time to build your campfire. Follow these steps to have a safe and fun time.

  • Gather three types of wood
    • Tinder (small twigs, dry leaves or grass, dry needles)
    • Kindling (sticks smaller than 1" around)
    • Fuel (larger pieces of wood)
  • Loosely pile a few handfuls of tinder in the center of the fire ring/pit
  • Add kindling in one of these methods:
    • Tipi (Good for cooking)
      Lay the kindling over the tinder like you're building a tent.
    • Cross (Perfect for a long-lasting campfire)
      Crisscross the kindling over the tinder.
    • Lean-to (Good for cooking)
      Drive a long piece of kindling into the ground at an angle over the tinder. Lean smaller pieces of kindling against the longer piece.
    • Log Cabin (Longest lasting campfire)
      Surround your pile of tinder with kindling, stacking pieces at right angles. Top the "cabin" with the smallest kindling.
  • Ignite the tinder with a match or lighter
  • Wait until the match is cold, and discard it in the fire
  • Add more tinder as the fire grows
  • Blow lightly at the base of the fire
  • Add kindling and firewood to keep the fire going
  • Keep the fire small and under control

How to Put Out the Campfire

A roaring fire is both a success, and a responsibility. It is your job to properly maintain and extinguish your campfire so that future campers can do the same.
Maintaining Your Campfire
As you're enjoying your campfire, remember these safety tips:

  • Once you have a strong fire going, add larger pieces of dry wood to keep it burning steadily
  • Keep your fire to a manageable size
  • Make sure children and pets are supervised when near the fire
  • Never leave your campfire unattended
  • Never cut live trees or branches from live trees

Extinguishing Your Campfire
When you're ready to put out your fire and call it a night, follow these guidelines:

  • Allow the wood to burn completely to ash, if possible
  • Pour lots of water on the fire, drown ALL embers, not just the red ones
  • Pour until hissing sound stops
  • Stir the campfire ashes and embers with a shovel
  • Scrape the sticks and logs to remove any embers
  • Stir and make sure everything is wet and they are cold to the touch
  • If you do not have water, use dirt. Mix enough dirt or sand with the embers. Continue adding and stirring until all material is cool. Remember: do NOT bury the fire as the fire will continue to smolder and could catch roots on fire that will eventually get to the surface and start a wildfire.

REMEMBER: If it's too hot to touch, it's too hot to leave!
Don't burn dangerous things!

  • never burn aerosol cans or pressurized containers. They may explode.
  • never put glass in the fire pit. Glass does not melt away, it only heats up and shatters. Broken slivers of glass are dangerous.
  • aluminum cans do not burn. In fact, the aluminum only breaks down into smaller pieces. Inhaling aluminum dust can be harmful to your lungs.

Pack it in, Pack it out.

  • be sure to pack out your trash. It is your responsibility to pack out everything that you packed in.