July 12, 2022

"Only You Can Prevent Wildfires": A History of One of America's Most Beloved and Successful Mascots

"Only You Can Prevent Wildfires": A History of One of America's Most Beloved and Successful Mascots

Who Is Smokey?

Smokey is a legend, one that started with a simple campaign promoting the prevention of wildfires or at the time, “forest fires”. From a cartoon bear to a real-life character, Smokey is a living example of the effects of wildfires. His story contributes to the foundation of what we know about wildfire prevention and protection. Since 1905, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service has worked to preserve public lands and their mission consists of creating awareness about wildfires.

How Was Smokey Born?

In 1942, The Forest Service created a program called the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program (CFFP) to inform the public through posters, slogans, and advertisements. They even used Disney film characters such as “Bambi” for a short time and found success with using animals as a fire prevention symbol. This inspired the creation of their own character, and Smokey Bear was born. Smokey began as a cartoon that soon became the famous real-life Smokey Bear, along with a story that has since inspired millions.

From Cartoon to Capitan

In 1944, advertising campaigns with the phrase, “Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Woods Fires” and a cartoon bear cub as the mascot educated the public about human-caused forest fires. The cub in the cartoon was named Smokey Bear and is still the longest-running public service campaign in American history. Not long after the campaign was created, a forest fire in New Mexico’s Capitan Gap devoured 17,000 acres of Lincoln National Forest. Firefighters from neighboring states were called in to help bring the fire down, but wind changes fueled the flames and kept fire crews on their heels. At one point, a crew of firefighters had to bury themselves in the remains of a nearby landslide while they waited for the fire to pass over them, and after emerging safely, they noticed a bear cub that had attempted to escape the fire in a nearby tree. The crew rescued the cub and brought him in to treat burns on his hind legs and paws. The cub had faced a great feat surviving the fire, and for his bravery, earned the name Smokey. News about the rescued cub traveled quickly and Smokey’s story was being broadcasted nationwide. With growing recognition, Smokey was dedicated to a conservation and wildfire prevention publicity program. Not long after the fire, Smokey moved to the National Zoo in Washington D.C., where many would travel to see him. He became so popular that he earned his own personal zip code due to the number of letters and honey jars received, preceded only by the president. Smokey lived a long healthy life of 26 years, serving the public as a living representation of the effects of forest fires, and the importance of education surrounding prevention. Once he passed, he was buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico.

Orphaned black bear cub "Smokey II" was the second live representation of Smokey Bear from 1975 to his death in 1990. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

Smokey Sings?

After his death, Smokey’s name continued to live on through his message, but when did he become Smokey THE Bear? In 1952, not long after the original campaign was created, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote a song called, “Smokey the Bear” and added “the” for rhythmic purposes. This created a rise in popularity for referring to him as “Smokey the Bear”,  although his name has never officially changed within the Forest Service. Around this same time, Smokey started to receive more commercial interest, and an Act of Congress was passed removing Smokey from the public domain in order to protect him for educational purposes.

An Advocate for Wildfire Education

Eventually, The Forest Service also changed ‘forest fires’ in ad campaigns to ‘wildfires’, which is used to specify that human-caused fires occur in different types of natural areas. In 2001, a massive outbreak in fires occurring in areas other than forests prompted an official change in the Smokey slogan to  “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires”. It is also important to recognize that there is a difference between uncontrolled wildfires and prescribed wildfires, a mission of education for the Forest Service today as they work to create a better understanding of public knowledge surrounding different kinds of wildfires and their effects on the environment.

Continuing Protection and Preservation Today

The story of Smokey Bear is an inspiration for many today as he continues to be a reminder of the real effects of wildfires. Humans are the number one cause of wildfires in the United States and the Forest Service works to educate the public while creating resources to provide protection for public lands. Pass on the story of Smokey and his message to others so we can work together to protect the world around us, and as Smokey says, “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires!”

To learn more about wildfire prevention, visit www.smokeybear.com.

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