America’s iconic bear still works to prevent fires.
By Henry M. Holden
He is recognized around the world and known almost as well as the American flag. He is one of the most famous advertising symbols on the planet. He is so popular that the government gave him his own ZIP code (20252), and enacted legislation to protect his name and product line.
His name is Smokey Bear.
By age 70 most people are retired, or at least semi-retired. Smokey, however, approaches his 70th birthday on August 9, still fully “employed” as he continues to disseminate his powerful fire prevention message.
In 1944 Smokey first appeared as a full-grown bear on the sketch board of Albert Staehle, an artist working for the U.S. Forest Service. Six years later, a flesh-and-blood, real live bear came to represent the cause.
The cartoon version of Smokey arrived on the scene when Americans were in the throes of World War II. The country needed huge quantities of timber. U.S. armed forces used enough wood to construct 9.5 million average-size houses. Gun stocks alone consumed 50 million board feet.
Officials knew this valuable natural resource was vulnerable to enemy attack, saboteurs, man-made accidental fires, and the whims of nature. Smokey’s original message, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires,” was changed after the war to “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
When the U.S. Forest Service and the War Advertising Council first laid out a fire prevention program, it did not include Smokey. Early campaign posters were colorful and featured short, witty slogans, such as “Careless matches aid the Axis.” People were told their efforts would save timber and help win the war.
As the campaign gained momentum, the council sought ways to give it more appeal. What would be more natural than an animal asking humans to help protect its home? Coincidentally, a popular movie character had narrowly escaped death in a forest fire; Walt Disney’s Bambi became the first to carry the fire prevention message.
Bambi’s strong appeal convinced officials that the use of an animal would pay dividends. The character, however, was on loan to the Forest Service from Disney for only a year, so the search began for a replacement. While a fawn was compelling, perhaps a larger animal would be more convincing. Lovable Bambi could not put out forest fires, nor could chipmunks, squirrels, or any other small creatures.
When someone suggested an animal that could stand erect and look like it could put out a fire, a bear came to mind. It had the qualities of strength and confidence, yet projected something gentle in its face.
Smokey (the advertising symbol) was born August 9, 1944. A Forest Service letter noted that he “should have a short, brown nose like a panda. His fur should be brown or black and he should look intelligent and appealing with a slightly quizzical expression. To make him more believable, he should be wearing a forest ranger’s hat.” Artist Staehle’s first few sketches did not show Smokey wearing pants. His blue jeans and shovel were added later to improve his image as a real firefighter in a working outfit. Smokey was named in honor of an assistant chief of the New York City Fire Department, “Smokey Joe” Martin.
Rudy Wendelin became Smokey’s official artist in 1946. Over the years, the bear’s face and personality gradually changed, but his ranger hat, blue jeans, shovel, and kind, yet confident manner became fixed firmly in the public’s mind. Wendelin’s versions of Smokey varied from humorous to serious, but always sympathetic.
During the first five years of his existence, Smokey was credited with preventing more than $10 billion in U.S. forest fire losses. Smokey became so popular that he was recognized from Canada to Mexico. In Mexico he was called “Simon el Oso,” Simon the Bear.
Smokey came to life as a real bear following a chain of events that began with an accident in the Capitan Mountains, in the Lincoln National Forest of New Mexico, one warm spring day in 1950.
It had not rained for weeks. A spark or a carelessly tossed cigarette ignited a small patch of dried grass. It took a while before a forest ranger in a lookout tower spotted the smoke. By then, it was too late. The forest became a blazing inferno.
While most animals ran for their lives, a black bear cub sought refuge in a tree. Soldiers from Fort Bliss who had been fighting the fire found the dazed cub clinging to the tree, which was scorched black. The soldiers brought the cub — severely burned on the paws and hind legs — back to camp. Briefly he was nicknamed “Hot Foot Teddy.”
Because the cub had been found in a burned-out forest, it was only natural that he was renamed “Smokey,” after the fire prevention bear on posters all over the country.
Later, game warden Ray Bell of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department brought him home to nurse him back to health. Bell planned to release the cub back into the forest after he gained weight. But he soon realized the cub’s burns were more serious than first thought, so he took him to a veterinarian.
Bell’s supervisor also took an interest in Smokey’s recovery. He gave Bell per-mission to take a photographer back to the spot where the cub had been found.
The photographs shot that day were key to the development of the Smokey brand. The desolate, blackened landscape made a profound statement on the ravages of a forest fire. An area that had taken hundreds of years to develop had been obliterated with a single careless spark. Somehow, the cub had survived, an omen that he was destined for a larger role in life, perhaps. But at that moment, no one could imagine what was in store for Smokey.
The cub, however, was not doing well. The vet had treated his burns, but the shock associated with the trauma slowed his recovery. Smokey would not eat and was losing weight.
Bell’s 4-year-old daughter, Judy, heard her father discussing the cub’s plight and asked if she could take him home and feed him. Bell reasoned that such a move could not worsen the situation, so he agreed.
The bear received love and attention from the minute he arrived at the Bells’ house. He ate almost immediately from Mrs. Bell’s hand and in a few days began to show signs of improvement. The cub alternately slept with Bell’s daughter and the family dog. The bear got along so well with the dog that the Bells joked about Smokey thinking he was a canine.
Unfortunately, Ray Bell was not one of Smokey’s favorite people. Bell had the thankless job of changing Smokey’s bandages. For a while, Smokey’s burned areas would hurt and bleed each time the game warden did his duty. Smokey developed an open dislike for Bell and never passed up an opportunity to bite him, which he did frequently.
After many weeks, Smokey’s wounds healed. His bandages came off, and he was officially turned over to the Forest Service. During his recuperation, Smokey’s fame had spread, and the orphaned cub became the Forest Service’s real Smokey. The agency flew him to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., which became his permanent home. A sign declared, “A gift to the school children of America.” The cub was soon a national hero.
People forgot that the original Smokey on the poster had been full-grown. Millions of Americans thought Smokey started life as a cub. Children’s questions about his daily zoo appearance sans blue jeans and ranger hat were easily answered by officials, who said, “Who wears work clothes at home?”
By 1960, with Smokey about 10 years old and in his middle years, zoo and Forest Service officials decided it was time to find him a mate so an offspring could carry on the family name and fame. The bear selected to become Mrs. Smokey was an 18-month-old female named Goldie.
Goldie was also an orphan from a fire in New Mexico and had been living in a zoo. After months of careful intro¬ductions, the bears were allowed to share the same quarters. Nature, however, did not cooperate. Officials became worried. How could they carry on the tradition of a real Smokey without a baby? Smokey was the biggest attraction at the National Zoo, and he was invaluable in public relations. Someone then suggested that they find a new cub.
An intense search produced another orphaned cub. And, as if history were repeating itself, the cub was found in the Lincoln National Forest, Smokey’s old home. The new cub, fortunately, was not the victim of a fire. He was christened Little Smokey and was brought to Washington in 1971.
Smokey, Goldie, and Little Smokey quickly became a family unit and made many public appearances together at the zoo.
As the years passed, Smokey slowed down and did not always come out to greet visitors. Age took its toll, and arthritis affected his mobility. Had he lived in the wild, he surely would have been the victim of a younger, stronger bear. But as a national hero, Smokey was allowed to spend his final days in a dignified way, befitting his station.
On May 2, 1975, Smokey was officially retired from the Forest Service, and Little Smokey, who wasn’t so little anymore, was named his official successor. Old Smokey died at age 26 in November 1976. He was flown to New Mexico for burial near his birthplace, at what is now Smokey Bear Historical Park.
His important message endures. The phrase created in 1947 by the Ad Council, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” was modified in 2001 to “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” According to the council, Smokey Bear and his message are recognized by 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of children.
Smokey Bear’s Legacy
Smokey Bear Historical Park is in Capitan, New Mexico, approximately 2.5 hours southeast of Albuquerque. Exhibits and a short movie in the visitors center focus on forest health and ecology, fires, fire prevention history, and more. Outdoor features include an exhibit illustrating New Mexico’s vegetative life zones, an amphitheater, a playground and picnic area, and the final resting place of the first living Smokey Bear. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and a small admission fee is charged. For more information, phone (575) 354-2748 or visit www.smokeybearpark.com.