Celebrating 75 Years of a Beloved Fire-Prevention Icon

Smokey Bear with a balloon for 75th year preventing wildfiresAs the risk of catastrophic wildfire continues to threaten communities and resources throughout the United States, the mission and message of Smokey Bear is more poignant than ever. Here in the Southwestern Region, we feel a particularly close connection to that message, and the orphaned black bear cub that would become a living symbol of it. While we celebrate 75 years of Smokey Bear as an integral part of the nation’s popular culture, let’s take a look back at his captivating story!

The Birth of Smokey

Smokey’s story begins Aug. 9, 1944, when USDA Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council, Inc., collectively known as the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program, authorized the launch of a national wildfire prevention campaign featuring the now famous, firefighting bear.  Smokey Bear as a cub, sleeping under a sign that says 'Remember-Only you can prevent forest fires!On Oct. 10, 1944, artist Albert Staehle delivered the first poster depicting a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire, along with the message “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!” It didn’t take long for Smokey Bear to gain popularity, and soon his image began appearing on more posters and other media. In 1947, his slogan became the familiar “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires,” and by 1952, Smokey began to attract commercial interest. Later, an Act of Congress was passed which removed Smokey from the public domain, placing him under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. The Act also provided for the use of collected royalties and fees for continued wildfire prevention education.

Fire in the Lincoln National Forest

By 1950, the CFFP’s burgeoning fire prevention campaign, and the illustrated bear named Smokey, had already begun to capture the heart of the nation. That spring, in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest, an operator in one of the fire towers spotted smoke and called the location into the nearest ranger station. The first crew discovered a major wildfire sweeping along the ground between the trees, driven by a strong wind. Word spread rapidly, and more crews reported to help. Forest rangers, local fire crews from New Mexico and Texas, and the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish set out to gain control of the raging wildfire.

Smokey Bear as a cub standing on a plane with a manAs the crew battled to contain the blaze, they received a report of a lone bear cub seen wandering near the fire line. They hoped that the mother bear would return for him. Soon, about 30 of the firefighters were caught directly in the path of the firestorm. They survived by lying face down on a rockslide for over an hour as the fire burned past them. Nearby, the little cub had not fared as well. He took refuge in a tree that became completely charred, escaping with his life but also badly burned paws and hind legs. The crew removed the cub from the tree, and a rancher among the crew agreed to take him home. A ranger with the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish heard about the cub when he returned to the fire camp. He drove to the rancher’s home to help get the cub on a plane to Santa Fe, where his burns were treated and bandaged.

News about the little bear spread quickly throughout New Mexico. Soon, The Associated Press and United Press were telling his story to a nationwide audience. Many citizens inquired about the cub's health and recovery. The New Mexico game warden wrote to the chief of the Forest Service, offering to present the cub to the agency as long as the cub would be dedicated to a conservation and wildfire prevention publicity program. The cub was soon on his way to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.Smokey Bear as a cub with a girl.

Smokey received numerous gifts of honey and so many letters he had to have his own ZIP code. He remained at the zoo until his death in 1976, when he was returned to his home to be buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico, where he continues to be a wildfire prevention legend.

Find out how you can help celebrate Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday!

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