With World War II raging away, natural resources needed to be protected at all costs. A forest fire could be devastating in terms of lost lumber. The government handed a very special bear the task of informing the public on the dangers of forest fires and the need for watchful vigilance. And for over 60 years, he has proven himself worthy of the task. He is Smokey Bear and his contributions to the war effort and beyond have made him a legend.
Wearing his trademark jeans and Stetson hat, adorned with his name, Smokey remains tireless in his efforts to spread the message about the dangers of forest fires. Realizing that his mission’s success depends on deputizing regular citizens, Smokey has enlisted millions of helpers over the years with the simple statement that “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Recently, he has altered this message to “Only you can prevent wildfires’ to raise awareness of the serious dangers that these types of fires pose.
Smokey Bear (there is no “the” in his name, by the way) was introduced by the US Forest Service in 1944, to help raise public awareness of the dangers that fires posed to the war effort. He replaced another famous spokes-animal you may have heard of named Bambi. When Disney declined to extend the contract of its animated deer, Smokey was called in to save the day. A man by the name of Rudy Wendelin was the artist that created Smokey and continued to draw him for almost 30 years, until he retired in the early 70s. To this day, the US Forest Service awards given out annually are known as the Smokey Bear Awards.
A real bear cub that was rescued from a fire in New Mexico in 1950 was given the name “Smokey” and became the living mascot for Smokey Bear for many years. He lived the remainder of his life at the National Zoo, before passing away from old age in 1975. He was buried in the Smokey Bear Historical Park in the town of Capitan, NM, site of the fire that made him famous.
The duty assigned by Smokey’s words may seem an enormous responsibility to place on the shoulders of only one citizen – you. But, truth be told, it is the collective “you”, every citizen that is, at the first sign of smoke, ready to jump into action and throw a shovel full of dirt or pail of water without hesitation. We’ll never really know how many devastating catastrophes were averted by his famous words and, by proxy, your actions.
If you grew up heeding the advice of Smokey Bear, we welcome all of your thoughts and recollections in our comments section, as we tip the ol’ Stetson for this beloved public service icon.