From orphaned cub to internationally known Forest Service icon, Smokey Bear turns 70 years old next year!

Donna Drelick
Office of Communication, U.S. Forest Service
June 11th, 2013 at 2:30PM

Sometimes, a story speaks for itself. Although Smokey Bear was created on August 9, 1944, when the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council agreed that a fictional bear named Smokey would be the symbol for their efforts to promote forest fire prevention – what later happened is simply amazing.

Imagine this. The year is 1950, and a fire has been spotted in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. The responding fire crew quickly realized that the blaze was more than they could handle. Word quickly spread that they needed help. Area forest rangers, Army soldiers, Native American crews and assorted state and local volunteers gathered together in an attempt to contain the inferno that was fueled by increasingly gusty winds.

During this time, someone reported seeing a lonely bear cub wandering near the fireline. The firefighters naturally left him alone because they assumed his mother was nearby and would rescue him.

A short time later, the firefighters found themselves trapped by flames. They barely escaped death by laying face-down on a rockslide for more than an hour. The fire raged past them and miraculously, except for a few scorches, all were safe and accounted for.

The little cub had not been quite so lucky. He had taken refuge in a tree that was eventually completely charred. Although the climb had saved his life, the little cub was badly burned.

The firefighters removed the cub from the burned tree, but they did not know what to do with him. A rancher, who had been helping on the effort, agreed to take him home. A New Mexico Department of Game and Fish ranger heard about the injured cub from talk at the firecamp. He made arrangements for a small plane to fly the little guy to Santa Fe for critically needed veterinary care.

News about the little bear spread, well, like wildfire. Soon media outlets reported on it nationwide. Public interest for the cub was incredible, prompting the State Game Warden to write an official letter to the Chief of the Forest Service, presenting him to the agency with the understanding that he would be dedicated to a program of fire prevention and conservation. The go-ahead was given to send the bear to Washington, DC, where he found a home at the National Zoo, becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.

And yes, his real name is Smokey Bear – not Smokey the Bear. In 1952, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote an anthem that would cause a debate among Smokey enthusiasts to this day. In order to keep rhythm in the song, they added ‘the’ between ‘Smokey’ and ‘Bear’. But his name never really did change.

So, think about this story now and again as you build campfires when out in the woods, or when you strive to keep your homes safe during this challenging fire season. And remember – ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT WILDFIRES.