In the bleak winter darkness of February 23, 1942, residents of Goleta, California, like most Americans, were quietly huddled around their radio listening to President Franklin Roosevelt give one of his famous “fire-side chats.” This one was grave – an update on the War and the news was grim. Suddenly, an explosion shattered the night air.
A Japanese submarine was bombing an oil refinery along the Santa Barbara coast! Little structural damage was done, but the explosions ignited a wildfire. Although foresters had been preaching wildfire prevention for years, this event sparked fears by high-ranking officials in Washington that enemy incendiary shells exploding in the forests along the Pacific Coast could easily set numerous, raging wildfires in addition to those already being caused by people.
Protection of the nation’s forests during wartime from uncontrolled fire quickly became a matter of national importance. The Forest Service was assigned the task and immediately organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) Program with the help of the Wartime Advertising Council and the National Association of State Foresters.
The first campaign agreed upon was “Careless Matches Aid the Axis.” Posters and slogans were created such as “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy,” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.” By using catchy phrases, colorful posters, and other fire prevention messages, the campaign encouraged people to prevent wildfires as wood was essential to the military effort.
But these early ads had their limitations including the fact they lacked in appeal to children. Walt Disney’s motion picture “Bambi” premiered about that time, however, and Disney authorized the use of its deer character from the film in a poster, but for only one year. The Bambi poster was hugely successful and proved that using an animal as a wildfire prevention symbol worked well.
On August 9, 1944, a new wildfire prevention symbol was agreed upon and Smokey was conceived! Artist Albert Staehle painted the first poster which showed a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire.
Smokey soon became very popular as his image began appearing on fire prevention materials. “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires” was first used as a slogan in 1947, and Jackson Weaver, a noted radio personality of Washington, D.C. provided his original “voice.” It was rumored that Jackson achieved the deep, baritone voice of Smokey by speaking into a garbage can.
Six years later, on a fine spring day in 1950 in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, a fire tower observer spotted smoke and reported its location to a nearby 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, Native American crews, 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 fireline. The little cub had been caught in the path of the fire, and 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. The cub needed veterinary aid and was flown to Santa Fe by New Mexico Game Warden Ray Bell where his burns were treated and bandaged.
The news about the little bear spread swiftly and soon the United Press and Associated Press picked up the story and broadcast it nationwide. The little cub’s value as a living symbol of the on-going prevention campaign was quickly realized and it was flown to Washington, D.C. with major publicity stops along the way. Once there, Smokey found a home in the National Zoo and lived in captivity for 26 years, finally dying in November, 1976. His remains were returned to Capitan, New Mexico, where he is buried in a state park dedicated to his memory.
In November 1951, the first Smokey Bear costume was fabricated by Wass of Philadelphia for the Virginia Division of Forestry. Its success prompted the USDA Exhibit Service to make additional costumes. Today Smokey Bear costumes are only made by licensed contractors and are only sold to federal and state wildland firefighting agencies.
In 1952, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, a West Virginia native, wrote the anthem that would cause a debate among Smokey enthusiasts that lasts until this very day. In order to maintain the correct rhythm, the writers added a “the” between “Smokey” and “Bear.” As testament to the song’s popularity, Smokey Bear became known as “Smokey The Bear” to many adoring fans, but in actuality his name never changed, and he is still known officially as Smokey Bear.
Smokey’s message of “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” was changed to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” in 2001. The change in tagline was in response to an outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests such as range lands, and to make Smokey’s message of forest conservation more contemporary.
Has all this effort to prevent wildfires had an effect? The answer is a resounding “YES.” The Smokey campaign is one of the most outstanding ad campaigns ever implemented in this county. Smokey is just slightly behind Santa in terms of public recognition. More importantly, is the reduction in the number of wildfires occurring each year. During the 1930’s, the average annual number of wildfires was 167,277. Today, that number is down to around 65,000 annually. THANKS SMOKEY!!
Robert Beanblossom, a member of the Society of American Foresters, retired after a 42-year career with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and moved to western North Carolina as the volunteer caretaker at the US Forest Service’s Cradle of Forestry in America.