Smokey Bear has long been a symbol of fire safety in the United States, and with his birthday, August 9th, right around the corner, it’s time to learn a bit about his history! He is most famous for the catch phrase “Only you can prevent wildfires”, a phrase that has developed over the long life of this fire prevention icon. The idea of Smokey Bear dates back to 1944, after the formation of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program by the Forest Service. The need for public advertisement of fire prevention came about a few years before, in 1942. In the midst of World War II, there was an attack by a Japanese submarine on an oil field near Santa Barbara, California. With forests close by, panic spread, concerned with the possibility of more attacks causing forest fires and potential loss of life. Most of the men who would be the regular, or volunteer, firefighters were overseas fighting in the war, so there was a desperate need for fire prevention. The War Advertising Council, the Association of State Foresters, and the CFFP, created posters and slogans, such as “Our carelessness, Their secret weapon” to gain cooperation from the general public to help prevent fires.
In 1944, Disney allowed the use of the characters from the movie Bambi to be used for this advertising campaign, in order to help create a symbol of fire prevention. After the year of use, Disney did not have plans to renew the contract, which lead to the need to create a character to represent the cause. Albert Staehle, a famous artist, known best for his drawing of Butch the puppy, was approached to help create the character that would be the face of fire prevention. According to Albert’s wife Marjory, the Forest Rangers suggested a woodchuck or raccoon, but Albert did not like these ideas, as he felt the raccoon looked too much like a burglar. Albert felt a bear was the best representation of forest life, as a bear could be portrayed as the “father of the forest”. This lead to the creation of Smokey Bear, named after ‘Smokey Joe Ryan’, who was a famous Fire Chief in New York. The first poster, pictured below, of Smokey pouring water on a campfire, was released on October 10th 1944, and Smokey Bear’s popularity began to sweep over the nation.
In 1947, the catch phrase “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” was first coined, along with giving Smokey Bear a voice. A popular radio personality in Washington DC, Jackson Weaver, became the ‘voice’ of Smokey Bear. A few years later, in the spring of 1950, a wild fire raged in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Firefighting crews worked tirelessly to contain the fire, and while doing so, came across a bear cub clinging to the top of a burnt tree. This little cub had saved his own life by climbing the tree, but ended up with severe burns. After being flown to Santa Fe for treatment, the little cub’s story gained massive popularity. It was quickly decided that this little bear was the perfect ‘real life’ version of Smokey Bear. He was transferred to the National Zoo in Washington DC, where he served as the face of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation. By 1952, Congress needed to pass regulations to remove Smokey Bear from the public domain, in order to keep his image under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. Although he is not technically under copy write, Smokey Bear is protected by federal law, with all collected royalties used towards education for wildfire prevention. The face of Smokey Bear has made his way on to posters and various products all around the country.
Today, wildfire prevention is more important than ever. With increasing global temperatures, the chances for starting wildfires has increased as well. Dry conditions, as well as strong winds, have contributed to devastating fires across Colorado, as well as many other states. According to the National Park Service, up to 90% of forest fires are caused by humans. Camp fires not completely extinguished, a tossed away cigarette, discarded shot gun shells from target practice, and other seemingly innocent items can spark a fire, causing massive damage and even loss of life. It is important to pay attention to current fire regulations, including fire bans and wildfire danger levels, to ensure we are doing our part to prevent fires. Heeding Smokey Bear’s words will keep you, and our forests safe for generations to come. Just remember, only YOU can prevent wildfires.