Can you complete this iconic phrase, “Only YOU…”? The rest of the phrase is of course, “can prevent forest fires.” This year marks the 75th anniversary of Smokey Bear, a much-loved symbol of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
The history of Smokey began several years before a live bear cub was found stranded in a forest fire. Originally, the campaign grew out of concerns that World War II had reached the American mainland. Japanese shells were fired on an oil field close to the Los Padres National Forest, creating the fear that such shells exploding in the forests along the Pacific Coast could ignite wildfires. With so many men deployed in the war, protecting forests was left to local communities and forest fires became a matter of national importance. In 1942, the USFS, the Association of State Foresters, and the War Advertising Council organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program with slogans such as “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy,” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.” That same year, Disney released the hugely successful movie, “Bambi.” Shortly thereafter, Disney loaned Bambi to the CFFP for one year to spread the word, “Please, Mister, Do not be Careless, Prevent Forest Fires, Greater Danger than Ever!”
The idea of Smokey Bear was born on Aug. 9, 1944, when the USFS and the War Advertising Council (now the Ad Council) partnered to have a fictional bear promote forest fire prevention. The first Smokey poster was painted by Albert Staehle, featuring a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire and saying, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.” This phrase was updated in 1947 to “Remember – Only you can prevent forest fires!” and was last updated in 2001 to “Only you can prevent wildfires.”
In 1946, Rudolph Wendelin, a Virginia artist, began drawing Smokey. Mr. Wendelin is credited with giving Smokey the look by which he is best known today: grave expression, hands rather than paws, jeans, shovel, and ranger hat. After his retirement from the USFS in 1973, Mr. Wendelin continued to produce Smokey Bear images and the original paintings are now on display, along with other wonderful Smokey memorabilia, at the National Agricultural Library to celebrate the 75th anniversary.
A real Smokey Bear was rescued from the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico in 1950. This young bear cub was found in a tree trying to escape the forest fire. He was badly burned but saved by the firefighters who named him Smokey. The bear was nursed back to health and given a permanent home at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he continued to play an important role in spreading the messages of wildfire prevention and forest conservation. By 1952, an Act of Congress placed Smokey Bear under the control of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and provided for the use of collected royalties and fees for continued wildfire prevention education.
Smokey died in 1976 and was buried in the State Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico, but his worthwhile work continues. An Ad Council survey in 2011 indicated that more than seven in 10 adults in the U.S. recognize Smokey and know his message. With nine out of every 10 wildfires caused by humans, Smokey is just as relevant today as in 1944. Do you know Smokey Bear’s fire prevention rules?
1. Only you can prevent wildfires.
2. Always be careful with fire.
3. Never play with matches or lighters.
4. Always watch your campfire.
5. Make sure your campfire is completely out before leaving it.
If you love Smokey as much as I do, you will want to visit these websites:
Smokey Bear will be at the Delaware County Fair, Sept. 14-18, 2019. Visit our display next to the sheep and pig barn. In the meantime, check our website at soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us for upcoming news and event. You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram.
Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to www.soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us.