By Monica Lambert
The Kern River Valley had two wood-cut Smokey the Bear signs proclaiming, “Remember…Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”
One bear stood just after the “Welcome to Kernville” sign as one enters into Kernville from Wofford Heights. The other proudly pointed out fire restrictions, from Highway 178 and Sierra Way alongside the recently refurbished “Wild and Scenic .. Go To Kernville” (12 mile) sign. On Aug. 16 or thereabout, one bear was stolen and the other one hit and damaged by a vehicle.
The original woodcut bears were purchased with a grant to the U.S. Forest District’s Kern River Ranger District. When approached about replacing the missing and damaged bears, they explained that they don’t have the funds to do so.
When Gary Ananian, president of the Kern River Conservancy, heard about the dilemma, he spoke with the forestry department and asked permission to create a fund-raising campaign to replace the iconic signs. With the go-ahead, the campaign was launched and approximately $1,000 was raised. The woodcuts are being made locally by Jerry Moffatt Sign Company, and after being cut they will be hand-painted, Ananian told the Kern Valley Sun.
Regarding the future security of the new Smokey the Bears, they’ll be bolted with security bolts to help keep them safely in place, Ananian said.
The original Smokey was a bear cub, found in the early 1950s during a raging wildfire in New Mexico. His badly burned paws and hind legs were treated in a game warden facility in Santa Fe. The story soon became nationwide news, prompting a huge response by the public.
“The state game warden wrote to the chief of the Forest Service, offering to present the cub to the agency as long as the cub would be dedicated to a conservation and wildfire prevention publicity program,” the official Smokey the Bear website said. The cub was sent to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., where he lived out his life, and the rest is history!
Now, more than ever before, Smokey’s message is an important reminder to visitors coming to the Kern River Valley. Ananian estimates two to three weeks until the project is completed and the two Smokey the Bears are back in place.