Many children across the U.S. are familiar with a story of Smokey Bear — that is, the story of the orphan cub found wandering near a fire line in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico in spring 1950 — but that’s not when the story actually began.
In New Mexico, firefighters at the scene hoped the cub’s mother would return, but confronted by a raging firestorm heading their way, about 30 firefighters lay face down on a rockslide for an hour as the fire burned past them.
The little cub had climbed a tree to escape the fire, but the tree went up in flames and the bear’s paws and hind legs were badly burned. A fish and game ranger helped get the cub on a plane to Santa Fe, where its burns were treated and bandaged.
News about the cub was eventually picked up by national media. The bear cub was transported to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he became the living symbol of Smokey Bear — until then an imaginary icon dedicated to conservation and wildfire prevention publicity.
According to the Forest Service, Smokey received so many letters he needed his own ZIP Code. When he died in 1976, Smokey was returned to his home and buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico. The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times published obituaries for him.
But that’s the story of the orphan cub that became the living symbol for an icon who was “created” in 1944. The story of the original Smokey Bear began two years earlier when characters from Disney’s full-length animated motion picture “Bambi” were loaned to the government for its fire prevention public service campaign.
The Forest Service authorized the creation of Smokey Bear on Aug. 9, 1944, which is considered his official birthday. In the campaign’s first poster, artist Albert Staehle depicted Smokey wearing jeans and a campaign hat pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. Underneath the message read, “Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!”
Three years later, the Wartime Advertising Council coined the slogan “Remember ... only YOU can prevent forest fires.” The slogan was officially amended to replace “forest fires” with “wildfires” in 2001.
By 1952, Smokey Bear had attracted so much commercial interest Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act to remove the character from the public domain and place it under the Secretary of Agriculture.
That same year, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote a popular anthem about Smokey Bear. Nelson had already written the hit song “Frosty the Snowman.” To maintain the rhythm of their new song, Nelson and Rollins added “the” between “Smokey” and “Bear,” and for many Americans from then on, the fire prevention icon came to be called “Smokey the Bear,” which is not correct.
Smokey was honored on his 40th birthday in 1984 with a U.S. postage stamp. In a commercial for his 50th birthday, forest animals threw a surprise birthday party for Smokey, but when he appeared blindfolded, he smelled the smoke from the candles and accidentally smashed his cake with his shovel.
For his 75th birthday this year, the National Zoo presented an outdoor exhibit with 14 posters and numerous archival photographs of the orphan bear in front of Smokey Bear’s original habitat. A 6-foot-tall statue of his cartoon persona was placed at the entrance.
Smokey Bear showed up at Chester’s Thriftway in John Day on Aug. 9, his birthday, courtesy of the Grant-Harney County Fire Prevention Co-Op.