One of the most popular and enduring symbols of conservation is Smokey Bear and his fire prevention message. But did you know that the first character that carried the fire prevention message was actually Bambi, whose creator, Walt Disney, lent her image for one year in 1942?
The need for a fire prevention campaign started in the early 1940s when the U.S. was involved in World War II and most able-bodied men and women were involved in the war effort. Back then, the U.S. Forest Service and other fire control agencies were worried that there weren’t enough individuals to fight forest fires and that our enemies might resort to starting forest fires on U.S. soil as a form of combat.
In 1944, the symbol of Smokey Bear was created by the U.S. Forest Service to relay the fire prevention message. The likeness of the original Smokey was drawn by Albert Staehle, and the first message was “Smokey says care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires.” That year, the Forest Service appointed Rudy Wendelin as the official campaign artist and caretaker of Smokey Bear. Wendelin held this position until he retired from the agency in 1973.
The likeness of Smokey evolved somewhat over the early years, and in 1947, the now famous slogan “Remember … only you can prevent forest fires” was adopted. 1952 was a pivotal year for the image when the popular song, “Smokey the Bear” was written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins. The songwriters added “the” to the lyrics to make the lyrics flow better. In 1952, Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act to closely guard the image and likeness of Smokey Bear. The law removed Smokey Bear from public domain and placed it under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. This law also authorized the sale of Smokey Bear memorabilia with the royalties earmarked to fund fire prevention campaigns. Today, the Smokey Bear image is administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council. Smokey’s slogan was changed again in 2001 to read “Remember, only you can prevent wildfires,” broadening the scope, since many fires occurred in grasslands, as well as forests.
The real Smokey
In 1950, a badly burnt bear cub was rescued from the Capitan Gap fire in New Mexico. The cub was nursed back to health, then transported to the Washington National Zoo, where it was named Smokey and presented as a living embodiment of Smokey Bear. Smokey was such a popular attraction, that thousands of visitors would travel to the zoo to see him, and he received an average of 13,000 letters a week from his many admirers. Smokey received so many letters, that the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own ZIP code, 20252, in 1964.
Smokey had a long life at the zoo, where he enjoyed taking a dip in his swimming hole, greeting his many visitors, and dining on peanut butter sandwiches, bluefish and trout. The original Smokey Bear passed away in 1976. In 1984, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp of a young bear hanging from a burned-out tree to honor Smokey Bear.
Today, Smokey’s likeness is found in numerous signs, posters and ad campaigns to remind people to prevent wildfires; and Smokey Bear is the longest-running public ad campaign in the history of the United States. This year we celebrate 75 years of Smokey Bear.