By Kathe Malouf
Special to the Sun
He doesn’t look a day over 50.
But Smokey Bear, the iconic bear who has become the national ambassador of fire prevention, will celebrate his 75th birthday this summer, and his birthday will be celebrated coast to coast.
The fire prevention bear is famous around the world as the “spokesbear” of the U.S. Forest Service for his timeless message that “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”
While most of us know Smokey’s slogan, and some might be able to sing the chorus of his song, not many know the full story.
According to the Forest Service, Smokey’s beginning dates back to World War II, when Japanese forces viewed wildfires as a possible weapon. In 1942, Japanese submarines surfaced near the coast of Santa Barbara, firing shells that exploded on an oil field, close to the Los Padres National Forest. Because most men were serving in the military and not available to fight forest fires, the Forest Service began using colorful posters as a way to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires.
Smokey Bear was created by the U.S. Forest Service with artist Albert Staehle as an advertising campaign in 1944. In the longest-running public service ad campaign in U.S. history, the Ad Council, along with the USFS and National Association of State Foresters used Smokey to educate the public about the dangers of wildfires.
The original Smokey poster debuted on August 9, 1944, and featured Smokey wearing jeans and a hat, pouring a bucket of water onto a campfire with the slogan “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” Several years later, that slogan was shortened to “Remember, Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In 2001, the message was updated to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”
The fire prevention mascot came to life in 1950, when a wildfire broke out in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico.
Firefighters were aggressively battling the fire when they spotted a small and frightened American black bear cub that had climbed a tree to escape the flames. The 5-pound, 3-month-old bear cub suffered burns on his paws and hind legs.
The firefighters were able to retrieve the cub and he was taken to a veterinarian facility where he was treated for his burns.
At first, the cub was called “Hotfoot Teddy,” but he was later named Smokey after the popular poster icon. News about the small bear spread and within a few days, the cub became a celebrity. The cub was cared for in New Mexico for a while, then he was flown to Washington D.C. and placed in the National Zoo, where he became the living legend of Smokey Bear.
Smokey lived at the National Zoo for 26 years. During that time, he received so many letters that in 1964, the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own zip code. Upon his death in 1976, his remains were returned to New Mexico and buried at what is now the Smokey Bear Historical Park.
Smokey’s popularity continued to grow and he has appeared alongside Presidents and movie stars.
In 1952, songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins composed a song named “Smokey the Bear.” The word “the” was added to Smokey’s name as a way to keep the song’s rhythm. That single word and variant of Smokey’s name sparked a national debate that is still argued today; however, Smokey’s name remains as Smokey Bear.
The large bear is a familiar site in the Kern River Valley, participating in parades, community events and classrooms where he continues to teach children about fire prevention. His message is simple: Never play with matches or lighters, always be careful around campfires and always make sure all campfires are out.
Amy Masi, Fire Prevention Technician on the Kern River Ranger District of the Sequoia National Forest, is a close and personal friend of Smokey’s. She is one of several “handlers” who accompanies Smokey during his public and classroom appearances.
And when Smokey enters the room, all eyes are on him.
“Smokey is the instant center of attention. When Smokey walks in, nothing else matters,” Masi said. “Both kids and adults just migrate to him. And everyone wants a bear-hug from the big furry bear.”
Because Smokey doesn’t speak (after all, he is a bear) Masi also serves as his interpreter delivering Smokey’s fire safety message.
Smokey’s message seems to be getting through.
“Smokey Bear is all about education, and he is very well received,” Masi said. “Kids do get the message. When we quiz them after the fire safety program, you can tell that they get it. Smokey is a good communicator, even though he doesn’t speak. We don’t know how many wildfires our programs prevent, but if it prevents even a couple, then we have done our job,” Masi said.
Dionne Uzes, Deputy District Ranger with the Kern River Ranger District, refers to Smokey Bear as a celebrity, and for good reason.
“He is found on posters, billboards, Frisbees, pencils, t-shirts and more,” Uzes said. “His image is a reminder of childhood for many generations, as he has made appearances at schools, county fairs and community events.
“His message ‘Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires’ has remained consistent over the years and could be recited by most school-age children,” Uzes said. “He becomes a symbol of wildfire prevention education and his story is one that children connect with. Acres burned or trees lost, that does not mean much to a kid, but a bear cub that endures burn injuries from a wildfire and loses his home in the forest, that is something that demonstrates consequences.”
Just like his appearance, Smokey’s message remains timeless and unchanged. And he has managed to expand his fire prevention message into the digital age, using social media outlets, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. He even has his own website where he demonstrates campfire safety, vehicle safety and how to prepare your home against wildfire.
So, how will the famous fire fighting bear celebrate his milestone birthday? With lots of celebrations. Although his birthday isn’t until August 9, his birthday celebration was kick-started on Jan. 1 when Smokey rode on a float in this year’s Rose Parade.
And as expected, the Kern River Ranger District will celebrate Smokey’s birthday. Uzes said the details are being worked out; but one thing is for certain: like the bear himself, Smokey’s birthday celebration will be big.