75 Years of Smokey

Smokey Bear is turning 75.In 2019, Superior National Forest invites you to join us and Smokey Bear’s many other friends to celebrate his 75th birthday.  As one of the longest running public service ad campaigns, people around the world recognize Smokey but not everyone may know the story of how his message has changed over the years and why. 


In the 1940s, during WW II, the threat of bombing along the western coast of the U.S. created concern that explosions would cause wildfires that would destroy forest land and valuable timber resources important to national security. Popular posters at that time featured messages like: “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy” and “Our Carelessness = Their Secret Weapon.”   

In 1944, Smokey Bear first appeared on a Forest Fire Prevention poster pouring water on an escaped campfire stating “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires!”  Smokey Bear’s famous catch phrase was introduced in 1947:  “Only you can prevent forest fires!”  

Smokey through the years.Words matter!  

“Only you can prevent forest fires!” continued to be Smokey Bear’s key phrase until 2001 when his message changed.  “Why?”  The evolution of Smokey Bear’s message coincided with an increased understanding of the science behind fire in the forest.  

For much of the 20th century, the goal of land managers throughout the U.S. was to completely control and suppress forest fires.  For example: In the 1920s and 1930s,  the U.S. Forest Service established a policy of controlling all fires at 10 acres or less by 10 AM the next day.  The expectation was this policy would reduce the amount of resource damage and the cost to fight forest fires.  When Smokey Bear came along in the 1940s, he helped to spread the message that fire in the forest was bad and must be stopped.    

Despite several decades of aggressive fire suppression, costs and resource damage continued to rise. By the late 1970’s, it was clear that the “10 by 10” directive was neither reaching the desired outcome nor was it sustainable. The Forest Service started talking in terms of fire management rather than fire control. Fire management focuses on effective and appropriate response to fire, which may not require keeping all fires small.  By the 80’s and 90’s forest managers came to understand that some fire was essential to maintaining the health of forest ecosystems, including those in northeast Minnesota.  At the turn of the century, Smokey’s message was revised again, this time to promote the prevention of unwanted and unplanned outdoor fires. “Only you can prevent wildfires!” 

The right fire in the right place at the right time   

Today, wildland fire managers speak about “the right fire in the right place at the right time.” Sometimes this involves strategically managing a wildfire, and other times it means the use of prescribed fire.   

Prescribed fire is an effective tool. It is defined as fire ignited by management actions to meet specific objectives. Prescribed fire is often used to regenerate forest stands. It helps to reduce fuels (leaves and forest litter) that contribute to wildfire intensity. Prescribed fire can also be useful in maintaining or improving habitat for native plants and animals.  Preparing for a prescribed burn begins many months and sometimes years in advance. The process prior to ignition involves writing a prescribed fire plan that must be approved, establishing control measures (such as fire lines), notifying the public about the prescribe burn date and details, and mitigating measures to protect values at risk (sensitive species, recreational uses, soil, water and air quality.) 

We know that fire is part of our local forest’s natural history. Wildland fire managers can use fire started by lightning strikes (naturally-caused) as a tool to benefit the health of our forests. In the right place at the right time, wildland fire can create the same environmental benefits as a prescribed fire. In the wrong place at the wrong time, wildfires can wreak havoc on life, property and communities.  

Fire as part of the landscape 

Fire, as a management tool, is part of the Superior National Forest’s holistic approach to restore and maintain a healthy forest that provides a wide range of benefits. An ‘All Lands’ initiative, involving collaboration with federal, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, as well as private landowners, helps Forest managers implement this holistic approach. Special authorizations and funds provided through the Farm Bill, stewardship contracts, Joint Chief Projects, and the Good Neighbor Authority support the ‘All Lands’ initiative. Partnerships with government organizations, such as the Minnesota Interagency Coordination Center and Minnesota Forest Resource Council, help us to coordinate our management efforts to achieve a resilient landscape. Working with the public is essential to making decisions on the Superior National Forest. All proposed activities follow the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.  Forest health management decisions center on vegetation management that may include prescribed fire, the harvesting and replanting of trees and often consider the use of chainsaws, insect control, herbicide applications, or prescribed fire.

Firefighters tending to a burn in progress. 

Only you…and all of us 

All year, year-after-year, the Forest Service and other federal, tribal, state, and local partners consider the best practices to manage wildfire. Together we conduct forest management projects and invest in training and equipment to help reduce the potential for, and damage from, unwanted wildfire. But, we can’t do this alone. We need your help. As Smokey states “Only you can prevent wildfire.” How can you help? Learn about and get involved in your local Firewise and Fire-Adapted Community programs. These fire education programs offer excellent tips for people living in areas prone to wildfire. Support local projects that improve forest conditions. Stay informed and follow official notifications. And, of course, be careful with all outdoor fire and follow all state, local and forest fire restrictions. 

Smokey Bear’s prevention message still rings true. Consider that, over the past 18 years, approximately 80% of wildfires were caused by people. While some unwanted wildfires may be intentional, more often than not wildfires occur because of human carelessness. Let’s help Smokey celebrate a successful 75th year through joyful celebration and being mindful to help prevent unwanted wildfire. 

Smokey Bear 75th: https://www.smokeybear75th.org/ 

Minnesota Firewise: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/firewise/index.html     

Fire Adapted Communities:  https://fireadaptednetwork.org/ 

Fires and other incidents across the country:   www.inciweb.nwcg.gov 

Twitter @SuperiorNF | Facebook:U.S.Forest Service Superior National Forest 

Minnesota state fire information http://www.mnics.org