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Smokey Bear celebrates reaching the 70-year mark Aug. 9. (Craig Turk photograph)
Smokey Bear celebrates reaching the 70-year mark Aug. 9. (Craig Turk photograph)
8/8/2014 7:30:00 AM
Smokey Bear turns 70 Saturday

Craig Turk
Outdoors Reporter

The star of the nation's longest-running public service advertising campaign is 70 years old as of Aug. 9.

Smokey Bear was born on Aug. 9, 1944, when the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council agreed that the fictional bear would be the symbol for their efforts to promote forest fire prevention.

Their first poster, which depicted a bear pouring water on a campfire and saying "Care will prevent [nine] out of 10 fires," was painted by artist Albert Staehle. Smokey was on his way to becoming quickly famous.

Smokey's well-known slogan, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!" debuted in 1947. And the message seems to have been received.

According to a Department of Natural Resources news release, the number of acres lost every year to wildfires went from roughly 22 million in 1944 (when Smokey was created) to an average of 6.7 million annually today.

Smokey is widely recognized. An Ad Council survey showed that 97 percent of adults know Smokey Bear and three out of four adults can recite Smokey's slogan.

And Smokey continues to spread his relevant message today. Smokey's slogan still rings true - nine out of 10 wildfires are caused by humans.

Common causes of wildfires include:

• campfires left unattended;

• disposing ashes from wood stoves or fireplaces; and

• operating hot equipment in dry grassy areas.

A living symbol

In the spring of 1950, in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, an observer from a fire tower to the north of the Capitans spotted smoke and called it in to the nearest ranger station.

A crew discovered a major fire being swept along the ground, driven by a strong wind.

More crews reported to help. Forest Rangers, army soldiers, Native American crews, men from the New Mexico State Game Department, and civilian volunteers worked together to battle the wildfire.

During a lull in the firefighting, a lone bear cub that had been seen wandering near the fireline was reported. The men left it alone, thinking its mother might be nearby.

At one point, about 30 firefighters were caught in the path of the fire, barely escaping by laying face down on a rockslide for more than an hour. The firefighters were safe except for a few scorches and holes burned in their clothing.

Nearby, the cub had been caught in the path of the same fire.

The cub took refuge in a tree that was completely charred by the fire, and though his climb had saved his life, he was badly burned on his paws and hind legs.

Soldiers removed the cub from the burned tree, but were unsure what to do with it. A rancher who had been supporting the firefighting efforts took the cub home. A New Mexico Department of Game and Fish ranger heard the story and drove to the rancher's home to get the bear.

The cub was flown to Santa Fe where its burns were treated.

News about the cub spread quickly. Soon the United Press and Associated Press picked up the story and broadcast it nationwide. Many people wrote or called to ask about the cub's progress.

The state game warden wrote an official letter to the chief of the Forest Service, presenting the cub to the agency with the understanding that it would be dedicated to a publicity program of fire prevention and conservation.

The bear was eventually sent to Washington, DC, where it was placed in the National Zoo and became the living symbol of Smokey Bear.

When Smokey died in 1976, he was returned to Capitan, N.M. to be buried in the state historical park.

Smokey 'the' Bear?

In 1952, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins added a "the" between "Smokey" and "Bear" when writing the popular anthem "Smokey the Bear."

Because of the song, Smokey Bear became widely known as "Smokey the Bear." But Smokey's name was never officially changed; he is still known correctly as "Smokey Bear."

Smokey information

In honor of Smokey's birthday, the DNR is hosting several events at state parks, state forests, the Wisconsin State Fair, ranger stations and local fire departments.

Many libraries are conducting summer reading programs to help children understand the differences between good fires and bad fires.

Smokey is giving out bear hugs online, using #SmokeyBearHug. Smokey also has his own website:

Visit Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter for more information about wildfire prevention. Search for "Smokey Bear."

Craig Turk may be reached at

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