Smokey Bear and Fire Prevention

Smokey BearFire Prevention & Smokey Bear

 Letters from Indiana Children

 In 1934, the Indiana District Foresters and fire wardens made a concerted effort to contact every farmer and landowner in the hazard areas of the state acquainting them with the problems of forest fires and soliciting their cooperation. After four years, debris burning in the areas canvassed had reduced by 85 percent. Since there was no corresponding drop in fires along highways caused by cigarette smokers, in 1939 the Department began experimental work on the construction of fire warning signs along highways.

highway billboard in 1930s

Uncle Sam PosterIn 1937 President Roosevelt kicked off a national campaign to reduce the number of fires caused by people. With approximately forty million acres lost to fire each year across the nation, this campaign featured Uncle Sam as a forest ranger. The message spoke to human element of fire, emphasizing people’s responsibility in protecting the forest. The message- “Your Forests – Your Fault – Your Loss” was a powerful message for the public.

The 1938 Annual Report of the Indiana DNR, Division of Forestry listed three categories of challenges for forestry in Indiana:

  • Prevention of fires in southern Indiana
  • Educational programs in northern Indiana designed to reduce the grazing of woodlots
  • Reforestation of eroded, abandoned, and other useless farmland.

The recognition of fire prevention as the first priority of concern was an important step toward focusing resources on the effort.

The focus on fire prevention escalated during World War II when so many able-bodied men had left for the military and the ranks of fire fighters in Indiana, as well as nationally were thin. As fire protection capabilities shrunk, the demand for wood escalated as the war industry consumed huge quantities of lumber for ships, packing crates, and the building of bases and military facilities. In 1942, Congress approved legislation that made the destruction of our forests comparable to sabotaging the war effort. The Wartime Advertising Council immediately began an aggressive campaign to reduce the numbers of forest fires. An example of one of their first posters is shown war II poster

When a careless smoker flips a match

Into the woods, or a broom sedge patch,

When brush is burned, on a windy day

It’s bound to spread and get away,

And burn his neighbor’s fence and trees.

Use your head, will you please?”


From a 1943 Handbook for Forest Fire Fighters

publication Some of the early fire prevention efforts are extraordinary by today’s standards. An early US Forest Service publication, "Forest and Flame in the Bible" that was distributed in this area is a compilation of references from the Bible. Filled with Biblical quotes and fire and brimstone messages, this publication was printed in 1953.

Smokey Bear, the American icon for wildfire prevention since 1944, has played an important role in Indiana. Smokey’s message “Remember… Only you can prevent forest fires” is one of the most recognized messages in the history of advertising. Smokey, as an artistic creation, came into being in 1945. Albert Staehle, one of the best known animal artists of his time, created the loveable bear. Rudy Wendelin, with the Forest Service became Smokey’s official artist the next year, and spent the rest of his long career helping Smokey evolve into the bear Indiana children now love so well.

     The series below shows how Smokey’s looks have changed over the years.

Smokey with blocks - 1944 Smokey ~1946 Smokey~1949 Smokey with shovel and friends

Several early Smokey posters featured Smokey Bear praying. For many Indiana audiences, a strong religious message was an effective medium for fire prevention.

poster of smokey praying smokey bear praying to help people be careful Smokey commandment to not destroy forests Smokey commandment tablet

Baby Smokey with the vet who treated his burns.Smokey was only a poster bear until 1950 when a 4-month old black bear was found in New Mexico clinging to a fire-charred tree after a forest fire. Once he was nursed back to health, (right) he became a national symbol for fire prevention. By 1951, Smokey bear costumes appeared and stuffed dolls followed.

By 1964, Smokey reportedly received so much mail that the Post Office awarded Smokey his own zip code. In Indiana, Smokey likely receives more fan mail than any other individual in the Department of Natural Resources. Most letters are written in bright crayons, and include interesting spellings and unusual observations by Hoosier children.

There are few employees who have served the Forest Service for over 50 years, so Smokey’s extraordinary service understandably has earned him landmark celebrations. For Smokey’s 40th and 50th birthdays, the IDNR and the Hoosier National Forest held statewide celebrations which included birthday cakes, “bear-avans” to schools around the state, programs at the Children’s Museum, Smokey’s messages on milk cartons, and a variety of other innovative ways to promote fire prevention.

Smokey with Bev and LukeBev Stout, Fire Prevention Specialist with the Indiana DNR, shown here with Smokey and a young fan, has received an unprecedented three national awards for Fire Prevention.