The guardian of our forest has been a part of the American scene for so many years it is hard for
most of us to remember when he first appeared. Dressed in a ranger's hat, belted blue jeans and
carrying a shovel, he has been the recognized wildfire prevention symbol since 1944. Today,
Smokey Bear is a highly recognized advertising symbol and is protected by Federal law (PL 82-
359, as amended by PL 92-318). He even has his own private zip code 20252.
To understand how Smokey Bear became associated with wildfire prevention, we must go back to
World War II. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. The following
spring, in 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced near the coast of Southern California and fired a
salvo of shells that exploded on an oil field near Santa Barbara, very close to the Los Padres
Americans throughout the country were shocked by the news the war had now been brought
directly to the American mainland. There was also fear that enemy incendiary shells exploding in
the timber stands along the Pacific Coast could easily set off numerous raging forest fires in
addition to those already being caused by people. Protection of these forests from uncontrolled
fire became a matter of national importance, and a new idea was born. If people could be urged to
be more careful, perhaps some of the fires could be prevented.
Forest fires caused by people were nothing new. For many years, the Nation had known that forest
fires presented a serious threat. As early as 1902, there was a standard General Land Office forest
fire warning poster that gave some guidelines for keeping fires under control. In 1939, a poster
showing a forest ranger who looked like Uncle Sam pointing to a raging forest fire stated "Your
Forest-Your Fault-Your Loss.”
Statistics showed that nine out of ten of the fires were person-caused and, thus, preventable. With
this in mind, in 1942 the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program
with the help of the Wartime Advertising Council. The Wartime Advertising Council was
composed of people experienced in the business of advertising who donated their talent to the U.S.
Government to get important messages to the people.
Posters and slogans were created through the Wartime Advertising Council, including "Forest
Fires Aid the Enemy," and "Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon." By using catchy phrases,
colorful posters and other fire prevention messages, the CFFP Program encouraged people to
prevent accidental fires and help with the War.
Walt Disney's motion picture, "Bambi", was produced in 1944 and Disney authorized the CFFP
Program to use his creation on a poster. The Bambi poster was a success and proved that using an
animal as a fire prevention symbol would work. Bambi could not be used in subsequent
campaigns because it was on loan from Walt Disney studios for only one year. The Forest Service
needed to find an animal that would belong exclusively to the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention
Program. It was finally decided that the Nation's fire prevention symbol should be a bear.
On August 9, 1944, the new fire prevention symbol was agreed upon by the Forest Service and the
Wartime Advertising Council. Artist Albert Staehle was asked to paint the first poster of Smokey
Bear. It showed a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. Smokey Bear soon became very
popular and his image began appearing on fire prevention materials.
"Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires" was first used as a slogan in 1947. Jackson Weaver, a
noted radio personality of Washington, D.C. provided the original "Voice" of Smokey Bear.
One spring day in 1950 in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, an observer in one of the fire
towers spotted smoke and called the location into the nearest Ranger Station. The first crew to
arrive discovered a major fire being swept along by strong winds. Word spread rapidly and more
crews were called to help. Forest Rangers, Army Soldiers, New Mexico State Game and Fish
Department employees and civilian volunteers worked together to control the raging fire. During
one of the lulls in the fire fighting, there was a report of a lonely cub seen wandering near the
The little cub had been caught in the path of the fire. He had taken refuge in a tree that was now
nothing but a charred, smoking snag. His climb had saved his life but left him badly burned on the
paws and hind legs. The firefighters removed the little bear cub from the burned tree and a
rancher, who had been helping the firefighters, agreed to take the cub home. The cub needed
veterinary aid and was flown to Santa Fe where the burns were treated and bandaged.
The news about the little bear spread swiftly throughout New Mexico. Soon the United Press and
Associated Press picked up the story and broadcast it nationwide. Many people inquired about the
little bear's progress. The State Game Warden wrote an official letter to the Chief of the Forest
Service, offering to present the cub to the agency with the understanding that the small bear would
be dedicated to a publicity program for fire prevention and wildlife conservation.
The go-ahead was given to send the bear cub to Washington, D.C. Once there, he found a home at
the National Zoo and became the living symbol of Smokey Bear. Smokey died in 1976 and was
returned to Capitan, New Mexico, where he is buried in the State Historical Park.
In November 1951, the first Smokey Bear costume was fabricated by Wass of Philadelphia for the
Virginia Division of Forestry. Its success prompted the US Exhibit Service to make additional
costumes. Today Smokey Bear costumes are only made by licensed contractors and are only sold
to Federal and State firefighting agencies. Any other sales must be approved in writing.
By 1952, the Smokey Bear symbol was sufficiently established to attract commercial interest.
Legislation was passed, PL 82-359, to take Smokey out of public domain and place him under the
control of the Secretary of Agriculture. An amendment to that Act, PL 93- 318, passed in 1974,
enabled commercial licensing and directed that fees and royalties be used to promote forest fire
prevention. Hundreds of items have been licensed under this authority over the years.
The Junior Forest Ranger program was also started in 1952. This activity encouraged children
throughout the Nation to write to Smokey Bear expressing their interest in fire prevention. In reply
they would receive a Junior Forest Ranger Kit and other fire prevention materials. By 1965, the
volume of mail for this activity was so high that Smokey Bear received his own Zip Code. The
program has been recently redesigned to keep pace with state-of-the-art educational techniques.
The CFFP Program rode through the 1970's and into the 1980's with lessened momentum.
Smokey's early years had been easy because it was a simpler time when his familiar message was
one of the few being pushed. However, intense competition, global markets and rapid
technological changes emerged, and Smokey found it difficult to compete for a share of the
In 1984, Smokey's 40th Birthday was celebrated, and the first day issue of his postage stamp took
place in Capitan, New Mexico. In 1987, Smokey Sports was launched as a new component of the
CFFP Program. "National Smokey Bear Day" was conducted with all major league baseball teams
in the United States and Canada. The decade of the 90’s opened the door for Smokey’s
revitalization and revival by celebrating his 50th birthday with a nationwide celebration engaging
in high visibility activities and events.
Smokey's message of "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" was changed to "Only You Can
Prevent Wildfires" in 2001. The term wildfire applies to any uncontrolled outdoor fire. The new
tagline was created by The Advertising Council, along with the US Forest Service and the National
Association of State Foresters (NASF), in response to the recent and rampant outbreak of
wildfires, and in an effort to make Smokey’s message of forest conservation more contemporary.
In 2004, Smokey celebrated his 60th Birthday with a special logo incorporating the line “60 Years
of Vigilance.” At a high-profile ceremony in Universal City, CA, Smokey blew out his candles
while children of wildland fire fighters sang Happy Birthday to him. At the celebration Smokey
Bear was presented with a giant Hallmark© Birthday card, a birthday cake and a personalized giftwrapped
To renew the important message of wildfire prevention to Americans, Smokey enlisted the help of
Bambi in 2004. Smokey has an experienced partner in Bambi, who was actually the first face of
the forest fire prevention message in 1942. DraftFCB, Southern California, who has worked on
the campaign since the beginning, featured Bambi on posters to remind us to be careful with our
forests. TV Public Service Announcements (PSAs) featuring Bambi were created, and asked us
all to "Don't Let Our Forests Become Once Upon a Time."
Has all this effort to prevent wildfires had an effect? During the 1930’s, the average annual
number of wildfires was 167,277. During the 1950’s, the average yearly number of wildfires was
down to 125,948. During the 1990’s the number was 106,306. Now this number does include
lightning started wildfires, but the trend is definitely going down.
From 2001 through 2008, almost 65,000 wildfires occurred each year from human carelessness
and those fires burned an average of 2,560,000 acres each year. We still have a lot of work to do.
Children need to hear and learn about Smokey Bear and his wildfire prevention message, and
adults need to be continually reminded of the need to prevent wildfires.
"Remember, Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires!"
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