Happy 75thBirthday to Smokey Bear! Created August 9, 1944 by the US Forest Service and the Ad Council, Smokey became the symbol for their combined effort to prevent forest fires. Artist Albert Staehle painted the first poster of Smokey Bear which depicted the fictional bear pouring water on a campfire saying, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.” His popularity skyrocketed and by 1947, his slogan became the now-familiar, “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!”
But what led to the creation of such a character? In the early years of World War II, fire was seen as a weapon of war. According to Smithsonian.com, in 1942, an oil field outside Santa Barbara, near the 2,700-square-mile Los Padres National Forest, was shelled by Japanese submarines. This raised concerns that fire on the homefront could distract from the war effort. So to combat that, the War Advertising Council partnered with the US Forest Service to launch a public awareness campaign about the threat. Their early ads looked like other wartime messages. One even featured Hitler glaring down on a blaze with the phrase “Our Carelessness: Their Secret Weapon.” But when Disney loaned Bambi to the ad campaign for a year, the public started to pay attention. So, the War Advertising Council created their own cartoon – Smokey Bear, wearing jeans and a ranger’s hat. He became so popular that by 1964, the US Postal Service gave him his own ZIP code because so many children were writing letters to him. Today he has an Instagram account and a Twitter feed; he also speaks Spanish. Recognized by 96% of adults according to the Ad Council, Smokey Bear ranks up there with Mickey Mouse and the President.
Not only has Smokey Bear been a sensation, he’s been effective, too. From the 1930s to the 1950s, there were 40,000 fewer annual wildfires in the US. And the average number of acres burned by wildfires each year decreased from 22 million in 1944 to just 6.6 million in 2011. Catriona Sandilands, an environmental studies professor at York University in Toronto says Smokey “ties fire suppression to good citizenship. With him, there is no question that fires are bad, and that individual citizens are responsible.”
However, some scientists are quick to point out that not all fires are bad. In fact, the targeted use of controlled burns can be implemented to prevent larger unplanned fires. Decades of fire prevention can lead to an excess amount of underbrush growth and dead standing trees. Add to that climate change causing drier conditions and you have a recipe for a fire that can catch quickly (from a lightning strike, for example) and generate devastating results. “The crisis is not the number of fires, it’s that we have too many bad fires and too few good fires,” states Stephen Pyne, who studies forest fire history at Arizona State University. Take the state of California. 2018 saw more than two million acres burned in over 8,000 wildfires with 85 lives lost, making it the deadliest wildfire season in state history. Pyne suggests that the two cubs often seen with Smokey Bear could be used to “educate about lighting fires and fighting fires.” He views them as an opportunity to “be a voice for a new generation learning to coexist with nature in an era of climate change.”
It is important to note that in 2001, Smokey Bear’s slogan changed to “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Although subtle, the intent is to distinguish between prescribed forest fires (which can be lit and controlled) and unwanted, unplanned wildfires which can’t. Babete Anderson, a US Forest Service representative, says “There is good fire and bad fire, that’s what his message is.”
The fact remains that most wildfires are caused by people. National Geographic provides some tips on ways you can prevent a wildfire:
- If you see an unattended or out of control fire, call 911, the local fire department, or the park service immediately.
- Completely extinguish a fire (douse with water and stir the ashes until cold) before going to sleep or leaving a campsite.
- Be careful with lighting and heating devices and flammable liquids when camping, by storing the fuel away from the appliances.
- Do not discard smoking materials anywhere on park grounds or toss from moving vehicles. Make sure cigarettes are completely extinguished before disposing of them.
- Follow burning ordinances and avoid backyard burning when windy.