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August 4, 2019

You have to admire a guy who goes to work every day in blue jeans to tackle one of the toughest jobs on Planet Earth. He accepts his assigned task without complaint, with a passion for his profession that is undiminished, and with a reputation for loyalty and faithfulness that is unblemished. The amazing thing is that he has been on the job, 24/7, for seventy-five years. Commendable in every way, this is a fellow of few words. He utters only one sentence, but for seventy-five years his message has been loud and clear — “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”

Smokey the Bear is an advertising mascot created in 1944 to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires. During World War II, the Japanese Empire developed a wildfire strategy to set ablaze coastal forests in southwest Oregon. In 1944 and 1945, the Japanese military launched approximately 9,000 fire balloons into the jet stream. As many as ten percent reached the West Coast of the United States. Elementary school teacher Elsie Mitchell and five of her students were killed by one of the bombs near Bly, Oregon, on May 5, 1945.

Though the United States Forest Service fought fires long before World War II, the war brought a sense of urgency to the effort. Since most able-bodied men were already serving in the armed forces, none could be spared to fight forest fires. Fire prevention became a goal. The hope was that if Americans knew how wildfires would harm the war effort, they would better cooperate with the Forest Service to keep fires from starting in the first place.

A bear was chosen as the emblem of the fire prevention campaign. His name was inspired by Joe Martin, a New York City Fire Department hero who suffered burns and blindness during a bold 1922 rescue. Joe’s nickname, Smokey, was given to the bear.

Smokey’s debut poster was released on August 9, 1944. In the first poster illustrator Albert Staehle depicted Smokey wearing jeans and a campaign hat. The hat was like that worn by the National Park Service Rangers. Their hat was derived from the cavalry who protected the early national parks. In the poster, Smokey is pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. The message underneath read, “Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” The more familiar slogan, “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires”, was created in 1947 by the Advertising Council.

Recently, one of our granddaughters asked, “Is Smokey a real bear?”

Clare has a first print copy of the 1955 book in the Vintage Children’s Little Golden Books series entitled Smokey the Bear by Jane Werner & Richard Scarry. She remembered that her mother bought it for her in the grocery store years ago. We found the book and read the story to our granddaughter.

In the spring of 1950, a wildfire burned 17,000 acres in the Lincoln National Forest in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. An American black bear cub, separated from his mother, was caught in the fire. He had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been burned. According to the New Mexico State Forestry Division, a group of soldiers from Fort Bliss, Texas, who had come to help fight the fire, rescued the bear cub.

At first, he was called Hotfoot Teddy, but he was later renamed Smokey, after the forestry service mascot. The cub’s permanent home became the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.  When he arrived at the zoo, several hundred spectators, including members of the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, photographers, and media, were there to welcome him.

Smokey the Bear lived at the National Zoo for twenty-six years. During that time he received millions of visitors as well as so many letters addressed to him that in 1964 the United States Postal Service gave him his own zip code. Smokey’s daily diet included bluefish and trout. But the growing bear quickly developed a taste for peanut butter sandwiches.

Smokey died on November 9, 1976. His remains were returned by the government to the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. He was buried at what is now the Smokey Bear Historical Park. The plaque at his grave reads, “This is the resting place of the first living Smokey Bear…the living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation.”

The Washington Post ran an obituary for Smokey, calling him a transplanted New Mexico native who had resided for many years in Washington, D.C., with long tenure in government service.

A spokesperson for the Advertising Council reports that ninety-four percent of Americans recognize Smokey Bear. He has survived several generations. He has joined Facebook and now has nearly 25,000 followers on Twitter.

The original name was Smokey Bear. That changed in1952 when Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote the song “Smokey the Bear.” The writers said, “the” was added to Smokey’s name to keep the song’s cadence.

There is no doubt that Smokey has been an effective advocate for fire prevention. In 1944 about 22 million acres were lost every year to wildfires. Today, the average is down to around 6.7 million acres due in large part to Smokey. Still, there are more than 62,000 wildfires are caused by humans every year in this country.

The iconic bear has made his point through a single slogan that became the watchword of those who love the backcountry. Coined in 1947, Smokey’s message has been recognized by millions for more than five decades. “Remember … only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Wildfire experts contend that naturally occurring low-intensity fires are necessary to good forestry management. They argue that decades of fire suppression create forests unnaturally dense with fuel. Periodic wildfires are an integral part of the ecosystems depend on natural fires for vitality, rejuvenation, and regeneration. So, in 2001, Smokey’s slogan was officially amended to “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” It is also a reminder that other areas, such as grasslands, are in danger of burning.

Smokey has been honored in many ways. The Congress of the United States has protected his name and his image.

The Smokey Bear Awards are presented by the United States Forest Service: “To recognize outstanding service in the prevention of wildfires and to increase public recognition and awareness of the need for continuing fire prevention efforts.”

For Smokey’s 40th anniversary, he was honored with a U.S. postage stamp that pictured a bear cub hanging onto a burned tree.

When I was in elementary school, our class put on a play. I had the part of Smokey the Bear complete with hat, blue jeans, and shovel. With a group of other children, I sang the song.

Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear.

Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air.

He can find a fire before it starts to flame.

That’s why they call him Smokey,

That is how he got his name.

The commercial for his 50th anniversary portrayed woodland animals giving a surprise birthday party for Smokey, featuring a cake with fifty candles. Smokey came to the party blindfolded. He smelled smoke. Unaware that the smoke was from the birthday candles, he leaped into action.  He used his shovel to destroy the cake. When he took off his blindfold, ever the gentleman, he saw his mistake and apologized.

This month Smokey the Bear turns seventy-five years old, and so do I. I warned my family not to put seventy-five candles on my cake. At the very least it would probably set off our smoke alarm. And, who knows? I might just smash the cake with a shovel!

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