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History of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign

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As early as 1902, Americans were warned about the damages of unwanted human-caused forest fires, but no formal campaign aimed at prevention existed. Then in 1939 a poster entitled “Your Forest-Your Fault” featured a Forest Ranger in the image of Uncle Sam pointing to a raging forest fire. During the years of 1936-1941 a total of 210,000 forest fires burned over 30 million acres of forest and range land. Nine out of ten were human caused. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine surfaced off of the coast of Southern California and fired shells near the Los Padres National Forest. In 1942, the USDA-Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program. War posters carried fire prevention messages, “Careless Matches Aid the Axis” and “Our Carelessness, their Secret Weapon.” In 1944 the Wartime Advertising Council decided to use an animal to carry the fire prevention message. Walt Disney agreed to lend the image of Bambi, for a year, to be the first to carry the message.

On August 9, 1944, a bear was chosen to be the spokesman for forest fire prevention. The bear was named “Smokey” after a well-known Assistant Fire Chief named Smokey Joe Martin. The first slogan, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires” was developed and artist Albert Staehle became Smokey’s creator. Within a couple of years, another artist named Rudy Wendelin took over as the Smokey Bear artist and stayed with Smokey until his retirement in 1973. Smokey’s message “Remember only you can prevent forest fires” was coined in 1947.

Events on May 9, 1950 changed forever the way Americans would look at the forest fire prevention message. On this day in history, a 5-pound black bear cub was found after a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains near Capitan, New Mexico. First named Hotfoot Teddy, the tiny cub was later re-named Smokey after the poster bear and sent to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. to become the “living symbol” for fire prevention. By 1952, Congress passed, and President Eisenhower signed into law the Smokey Bear Act, public law 359. This law gave control of the image of Smokey to the Secretary of Agriculture so that there would be no unlawful use of Smokey Bear’s image. To date, millions in royalties have been collected for forest fire prevention education efforts. One of those education efforts included the Junior Ranger Program, which began in 1953 and encourages children to help Smokey prevent forest fires. By 1964 Smokey’s fan mail was so great that he was given his own zip code, 20252. You can still write to Smokey today. The only other celebrity to have this honor is the President of the United States!

In the late 1950’s, a search was underway for a mate for Smokey, and in 1961 “Goldie”, an orphaned female black bear also from New Mexico, arrived in Washington to be Smokey’s mate. Sadly, no cubs were ever born to the couple and a search began to find an adopted son. In 1971, another orphaned black bear was found and sent to Washington, D.C. to become “Little Smokey”. His training lasted for four years when Smokey retired in 1975 after serving for 25 years as the “living symbol” for fire prevention and Little Smokey takes over. On November 9th, 1976, Smokey passed away and was returned to his hometown of Capitan, New Mexico and is buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park. The story of the “living symbol” closed with the death of Little Smokey on August 11, 1990 who was buried in an undisclosed location in Washington, D.C.

The Smokey Bear Cooperative Fire Prevention Campaign celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2019. Smokey Bear LIVE: A Distance Learning Adventure was one of many events that took place in Capitan and around the country to mark the occasion. That same year New Mexico and The Village of Capitan celebrated the 70th birthday of the “living symbol” Smokey Bear, one of America’s most famous animals!

As more and more people continue to build homes in heavily forested areas, Smokey’s message may be more important today than when it was first conceived all those years ago. Remember, only you can prevent wildfires!