Cultural and public service icon Smokey Bear turns 75 this month. The long-running campaign for wildfire prevention awareness has led to an estimated 96% of Americans knowing who he is, which puts him in an elite category along with Mickey Mouse and the American President.
In honor of Smokey’s 75th birthday, Sam Elliot, the longtime voice of Smokey, who coincidentally shares an August 9th birthday with Smokey, is stepping aside while Betty White, Stephen Colbert, Jeff Foxworthy, and Al Roker lend their voices to new PSAs from the Ad Council. And this November, look for the return of the Smokey Bear balloon to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He last flew in 1994, in celebration of his 50th birthday.
In February 1942, just a few months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine fired shells at the Ellwood oil fields, near Santa Barbara, CA. The attack did minimal damage, but raised fears. The attack was close to the Los Padres National Forest. With so many deployed overseas in the war effort, America’s firefighter ranks were depleted. The thought that the Japanese may bomb forests in order to create a forest fire as a tool of destruction, or as a tool to help light their path for landing on American soil, was enough to spark action.
As the Japanese continued the wildfire strategy, launching 9,000 fire balloons toward the US, it was time for action. The National War Advertising Council (now called the Ad Council) teamed up with the US Forest Service. Protection of forests became a national priority.
In 1942, the Forest Service established the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program (CFFP).
A great stroke of luck came into play around the same time. The Walt Disney Company’s movie “Bambi” was released in 1942 and was hugely popular. Forests and the animals who call them home were already top of mind. Disney loaned the Bambi characters to the CFFP for a short time, to help with messaging. The CFFP needed a permanent mascot, though. On August 9, 1944, Smokey Bear was authorized by the Forest Service.
The first poster announcing him, by Albert Staehle, showed a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. In 1947, he got his “only you can prevent forest fires” tagline.
The wide-brimmed forest ranger hat worn by Smokey soon became known as a Smokey Bear hat. Because the State Police in many states wear similar hats, “Smokey” then became a code word for policemen among truck drivers and CB enthusiasts.
In 1950, a real bear helped make the cartoon bear a household name. On a spring day in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, a crew discovered a wildfire. While battling it, a badly burned, three-month old bear cub was found clinging to a charred tree. A rancher took him home to provide care, and soon after, a Department of Game and Fish Ranger chartered a plane to bring the bear to his house for additional treatment with the help of his wife and young children. News of the bear spread, well, like wildfire. As soon as the cub was well enough, he was moved to the National Zoo in Washington DC, a living symbol of the destruction created by a forest fire.
Named Smokey, the cub received so many get well cards, gifts, and pots of honey, that he was given his own ZIP code, 20252.
In 1952, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, the duo behind the hit “Frosty the Snowman” wrote an ode to Smokey. In order to improve the rhythm of the song, they added a “the” to his name.
Smokey soon became quite popular, leading to an Act of Congress removing Smokey from the Public Domain, in order for the Secretary of Agriculture to collect royalties on his likeness, in order to use the funds for wildfire prevention and education. Royalties from the sales of related toys and replicas, and junior ranger kits for kids, have brought an estimated $1.5 million to the Forest Service’s Fire Prevention Program.
Smokey Bear is the longest running public service campaign in America. An estimated $1.6 billion in donated media over the decades has led the Ad Council to report that 85% of outdoor recreationalists believe they are capable of preventing forest fires. Between 1930 and 1950, the average number of wildfires dropped by 40,000 and the acres damaged decreased from 22 million to 6.6 million. By tying fire suppression to good citizenship, individuals felt empowered by Smokey to make change in their neighborhoods. His message is still going strong. More recently, there has been a 14% reduction in human-caused fires between 2011-18.