TYLER, Texas (KETK) – America’s best-known bear, and possibly one of the most successful ad campaigns in history, celebrated his 75th birthday Friday.
Smokey Bear, that gruff-voiced, towering figure in blue jeans and forest ranger hat, has been reminding us all that “Only YOU can prevent wildfires” since 1944.
Communities around the country are celebrating the milestone with “birthday parties” for Smokey aimed at continuing his education efforts.
The Forestry Museum of East Texas in Lufkin will celebrate his birthday with games, learning activities and cake (because of course!) Saturday, November 9.
Smokey first appeared on a poster by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in 1944, and, while his uniform hasn’t changed much over the ensuing decades, there’ve been definite refinements in his appearance.
His catchphrase has changed over the years, too.
His original words were, “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” In 1947, the phrase changed to, “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In 2001, it was again updated to its current version of “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests and to clarify that Smokey is promoting the prevention of unwanted, accidental, and human-caused fires.
Believe it or not, Smokey and his campaign were born out of World War II.
The date December 7, 1941, does, as FDR predicted, live in infamy for the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. That next spring, Japanese submarines fired shells that landed and exploded on an oil field near the Los Padres National Forest in California. Fear grew that more attacks could bring a disastrous loss of life and destruction of property, and even ignite raging wildfires.
Of course, the problem was that so many experienced firefighters had enlisted in the armed forces after Pearl Harbor and were now fighting in the war. That left the protection of forested areas and the prevention of fires up to local communities. To rally everyday Americans to the cause, a propaganda campaign – one more among so many born of that time – was birthed.
The U.S. Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program with the help of the War Advertising Council – now familiar as the Ad Council – and the Association of State Foresters. Together, they created posters and slogans, including “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy,” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.”
Smokey wasn’t part of the campaign at first. Oddly enough, though, the Walt Disney company was. (Seriously, is there anything Disney hasn’t influenced?)
In 1942, the country was in the grips of Bambi-mania. The iconic movie celebrating a young orphaned deer and his woodland friends was wildly popular across the country. So how better to teach Americans not to burn down forest lands than by centering a campaign around cute forest animals?
In 1944, Disney allowed the Forest Service to put some of its characters from Bambi on a poster. But that agreement was limited; Disney was only loaning its characters for a year.
The Forest Service needed another mascot, and one that would belong only to them.
On August 9, 1944, the U.S. Forest Service authorized the creation of Smokey Bear (note, there is no “the” there; his name is simply, and officially, Smokey Bear). On October 10, artist Albert Staehle delivered the first poster, depicting Smokey Bear, in his blue jeans and forest ranger hat, pouring water on an unattended campfire.
The campaign took off, and Smokey Bear became a hit. So much of one, in fact, that in 1952 Congress passed a law removing Smokey Bear from the public domain and placed him under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. According to that law, all royalties and fees collected from the use of his image would fund continued wildfire prevention education.
Smokey Bear has become an integral part of American culture. He has appeared on postage stamps, has been celebrated in major league baseball parksin the U.S. and Canada with “National Smokey Bear Day” events, and, that hallmark of hallmarks, been immortalized as a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
His first balloon was a staple in that parade from 1966-1981. He made another appearance in the parade in 1993 on his 50th birthday. Smokey Bear will return to this year’s parade to celebrate his 75th birthday.
In 2004, Smokey Bear and Bambi were reunited in an ad campaign. And down through the decades, Smokey Bear has been aided in his efforts to prevents fires by a number of celebrities, including B.B. King, Betty White, Dolly Parton, Leonard Nimoy, Ray Charles, Stephen Colbert, Jeff Foxworthy, and Al Roker.
Even Rod Serling made a notable contribution to Smokey’s efforts.
Actor Sam Elliott has been the voice of Smokey Bear since 2007.
But, lest we forget, Smokey has been more than just a drawing on a page, an animated figure on TV screen or pixels on a digital device. Two live, actual bears have embodied Smokey.
The first was an orphaned black bear cub rescued from a fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico in 1950. The little fellow, whose paws and hind legs were badly burned, became an instant celebrity. The New Mexico State Garme Warden presented him to the Forest Service as a mascot dedicated to a conservation and wildfire prevention publicity program.
He became a resident of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he became so popular and got so many letters that he eventually was given his own Zip code by the U.S. Postal Service.
Smokey lived at the National Zoo until his death in 1976, when he was returned to his home to be buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico, where he continues to be a wildfire prevention legend.
He was “married” in 1962 to Goldie Bear, and it was hoped the couple would produce an heir to the Smokey Bear name and legacy. Unfortunately, no children resulted from the union. In 1971, though, the zoo helpfully provided an orphaned cub to the pair, and Smokey and Goldie “adopted” Little Smokey.
When Smokey Bear (the actual bear) “retired” in 1971, Little Smokey took up the mantle and served the nation as Smokey Bear II until his death in 1990.
To celebrate the legacy and 75th birthday ofone of its most popular residents, the National Zoo has opened an exhibit that will run through December of this year.
There is a definite air of timelessness to Smokey and his decades-long work to make people more careful with fire. “Only you can prevent forest fires” is now “Only you can prevent wildfires,” but not much else has changed.
Yet to make certain that his message continues to reach as many people as possible, Smokey has made the leap from TV ads and campaign posters to the digital platforms where everyone lives these days.
And, sadly, that outreach is still needed. Wildfires remain a staple of the news as we all watch thousands of acres of forests, mountain lands, prairies and even roadsides burn every year.
According to a study published in February 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , 84% of the blazes that firefighters were called to fight in the U.S. between 1992 and 2012 were ignited by people.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates that nearly 9 out of 10 wildfires nationwide are caused by humans, either accidentally or by arson, and could have been prevented.
So celebrate Smokey’s 75th birthday the way he would no doubt wish – exercise care and caution while burning, never leave a fire of whatever size unattended, and be certain that every fire is thoroughly extinguished before leaving it. And if you bake him a cake, maybe skip the candles.
Remember, only YOU can prevent wildfires.