August 9, 1944 ~ Happy Birthday Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear the cuddly, yet firm, human-like bear who has educated generations of Americans about their role in preventing wildfires with his proclamation that , “Only you can prevent forest fires,” was unveiled to the world on August 9, 1944.

Jointly administered by the Ad Council, the USDA Forest Service, and the National Association of State Foresters, the Smokey Bear we all know and love wasn’t the first choice to be the fire prevention spokesperson.

In fact, Bambi, the great prince of the forest, from the Disney film released in 1942 was first tried as the fire prevention spokesperson. Bambi was only loaned to the government for a year, so a new symbol was needed. After much discussion, artist Albert Staehle developed the bear character that became Smokey.

Staehle was primarily a dog artist, and the original Smokey had a soft flowing coat like a collie.

When Rudy Wendelin took over the campaign a few years later, he refined the Smokey to look most people recognize today.

In 1947, the Wartime Advertising Council (now the Ad Council) coined the slogan that was associated with Smokey Bear for more than five decades: “Remember … only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

In 2001, the slogan was officially amended to replace “forest fires” with “wildfires” in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests.

The living symbol of Smokey Bear was a five-pound, three month old American black bear cub who was found in the spring of 1950 after the Capitan Gap fire, a wildfire that burned in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico.

Smokey had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been burned.

After his rescue and rehabilitation, Smokey became a national celebrity.

Soon afterwards, Smokey was taken to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. where he lived for 26 years.

During that time he received millions of visitors and so many letters addressed to him (more than 13,000 a week) that in 1964 the United States Postal Service gave him his own ZIP code (20252), which is still in use.

As the campaign continued through the years and the characters popularity skyrocketed, Smokey quickly became a part of American popular culture, appearing on radio programs, in comic strips, in cartoons, and as merchandise.

He was so popular in fact that in 1952, the United States Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act to remove the character from the public domain and dedicated Smokey’s royalties for continued education on the subject of forest wildfire prevention.

Since the 1950s the Ad Council has sponsored radio and TV advertisements featuring Smokey Bear prominent American celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Art Linkletter, Dinah Shore, Roy Rogers, Rod Sterling and more.

Over the decades commercials and advertisements featuring celebrities of the moment with Smokey have come and gone. Yet Smokey Bear continues.

At 75-years old in 2019, The Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history and will likely continue to educate entertain generations to come.

Smokey’s consistent presence in the movement and a strict set of rules that govern his usage and image are likely the reason the campaign has been so enduring.

A 2012 survey by the Ad Council found that 96 percent of Americans recognize Smokey Bear

Despite the campaign’s success over the years, wildfire prevention remains one of the most critical issues affecting our country. Smokey’s message is as relevant and urgent today as it was in 1944.


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