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Going to great heights for fire prevention: Smokey Bear balloon gears up for race

NEVADA—Smokey Bear is preparing to take to the skies soon—or, at least, his balloon is. The Great Reno Balloon Races are held Sept. 6–8 in Reno, Nevada. Around 125,000 spectators attend this spectacular event each year and Smokey has been one of the crowd favorites for nearly 20 years. 

The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest co-sponsors the Smokey Bear balloon in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Division of Forestry and Sierra Front Cooperators. In addition to sponsoring the balloon, each agency sends volunteers to help set up, chase and take down the enormous bear.

Smokey Bear balloon comes in for a landing.
The Smokey Bear balloon prepares to land after flying during the Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival. USDA Forest Service photo by Withanee Milligan.

Jennifer Diamond, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest fire prevention officer, looks forward to the event every year. “The Smokey Bear balloon is a great representation of collaboration amongst agencies and promotes a unified fire prevention message.” 

And it’s a message that needs to be heard. On average, nine out of every 10 wildfires are human-caused, so it remains a vital reminder for the public about their role in fire prevention. What better cue is there than a 97-foot bear head?

Sometimes, the best reminders are the ones you can’t just overlook. 

Smokey Bear’s balloon took two decades of planning. Its first public voyage was in 1993 at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico.

The balloon was built and sent aloft by a unique public/private partnership of volunteers, private sponsors, National Association of State Foresters and USDA Forest Service. It is now managed by the Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to fire prevention and education.

There is only one Smokey Bear balloon in the entire country. A group of five balloon pilots and their crew chiefs are on a rotation and travel to events all over the United States, including the Great Reno Balloon Race. 

The current Smokey Bear balloon, a 2005 Aerostar International special shape balloon, holds 145,000 cubic feet of air and is 97 feet tall with the basket. The total balloon weighs 1,130 pounds. It requires a launch site at least 100 feet long and 80 feet wide, 750 feet from any overhead power lines, and 300 feet from any obstruction over 50 feet above the launch site surface. Balloon set-up and take-down is no simple task. It requires 12 to 17 people working together in stages to get Smokey upright and ready to fly. 

Balloon flight itself is strangely peaceful. With nothing but the intermittent sound of the gas burners, there is something very calming about the experience—not a feeling you would expect hanging 1,000 feet above the ground in a wicker basket.

Due to the popularity of the Smokey Bear balloon at the Great Reno Balloon Races, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, BLM and others sponsored it at the Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival in Elko, Nevada, in July 2018 and 2019. 


Smokey Bear baloon; crew prepares it for lift off.
Crews prepare the Smokey Bear Balloon for launch at the Great Reno Balloon Race. USDA Forest Service photo by Erica Hupp.