The anthropomorphic guardian of the nation’s forests has been embedded in the American landscape for so long it’s difficult to recall a time when Smokey Bear was not a mainstay in popular culture, championing fire prevention from beneath his signature ranger’s hat and belted blue jeans.
As Montana and other Western states head into summer — a season historically characterized by wildfire, and increasingly so in the face of changes to forest management and climate change — Smokey Bear will celebrate his 75th birthday as America’s longest-running public service announcement, even as the message of total fire suppression has become outmoded as agencies use fire as a tool for forest management and fuel reduction.
From his debut on Aug. 9, 1944, Smokey Bear has been a ubiquitous symbol of conservation and protection of the nation’s forests, and the U.S. Forest Service estimates his message has helped reduce the number of acres lost annually to wildfire from about 22 million acres in 1944 to an average of 6.7 million acres today.
Smokey’s message of personal responsibility admonishes citizens that “only you can prevent forest fires” — a tagline that was amended in 2001 to “only you can prevent wildfires” — and the extent to which it has taken root in the American vernacular is evidenced by the catchphrase having survived the decades nearly unchanged, even as the course of U.S. fire policy has been re-chartered to restore some fire to the landscape.
“The Smokey Bear effect,” as fire ecologists have taken to describing the campaign’s exclusionary philosophy surrounding wildfire, has done little to compromise the beloved bear’s outsized role in cautioning against human-caused fires, though his origin story actually dates back to World War II, when American anxiety was washing over the country and effectively drowned out the pre-war debate about whether it was better to snuff out fires altogether, or let some burn and even prescribe others.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. The following spring, a Japanese submarine surfaced near the coast of southern California and launched a series of exploding shells onto an oil field near Santa Barbara, California, near the Los Padres National Forest. The prospect of enemy fire igniting devastating wildfires suddenly became a palpable threat, and forest management stormed into the public’s consciousness as a national-security threat.
“Americans throughout the country were shocked by the news the war had now been brought directly to the American mainland,” according to a U.S. Forest Service report on Smokey’s history. “There was also fear that enemy incendiary shells exploding in the timber stands along the Pacific Coast could easily set off numerous raging forest fires in addition to those already being caused by people. Protection of these forests from uncontrolled fire became a matter of national importance, and a new idea was born. If people could be urged to be more careful, perhaps some of the fires could be prevented.”
Furnishing statistics that nine out of 10 fires were human-caused and preventable, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program (CFFP) with the help of the Wartime Advertising Council, which was composed of ad wizards who donated their talent to the federal government to broadcast messages to the public during pressing times.
Soon, posters and slogans included messages like “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon,” which were captioned beneath sinister images of Adolf Hitler, Japanese leader Isoroku Yamamoto and a burning forest.
Searching for a less fearful message, the agencies found their first spokes-critter in an unlikely place.
In 1944, Walt Disney produced the hit motion picture “Bambi” and authorized the CFFP to use the iconic fawn as a fire-prevention symbol, pleading to the public “Please Mister, Don’t Be Careless.” However, Walt Disney studios merely loaned the character to the program for a year, and the looming expiration date forced the Forest Service to begin searching for another charismatic animal for exclusive use.
Forest officials settled on a bruin to help battle the blazes and commissioned artist Albert Staehle to paint the first poster of Smokey Bear, which portrayed an early iteration of the bear dousing a campfire with a bucket of water.
The thrust of Smokey’s message was to educate the American public about its role in preventing human-caused fires by taking care to douse campfires and extinguish BBQ coals, as well as promote precautionary measures to deter burning trash on windy days, carelessly discarding cigarettes and operating equipment without spark arrestors.
The campaign’s effectiveness was borne out not only through Smokey’s family-friendly popularity — the character quickly evolved to include radio spots, television commercials and even a live cub rescued from a wildfire in New Mexico — but also through the dramatic reduction in size of wildland forest fires.
According to Charles E. Little, writing for “American Forests” in 1993 in a piece entitled “Smokey’s Revenge,” the anti-forest-fire campaign had unforeseen consequences in just a few decades of aggressive fire suppression.
“During the war years, the annual burn consumed an average of 30 million acres, an area more than half the size of the entire state of Wyoming,” Little wrote. “By contrast, even in the conflagrated year of 1988, with mass fires not only in Yellowstone but throughout the Rockies, only 7.4 million acres burned in the U.S. — twice as much as in some recent years, but only a quarter of what was destroyed during a typical war year.”
Another article that appeared in 2007 by The Ecological Society of America, authored by two Forest Service researchers and entitled “Be Careful What You Wish For: The Legacy of Smokey Bear,” spelled out the costs and consequences of Smokey’s success and offered an alternative approach to wildfire management that places less emphasis on suppression.
The article describes a “consensus among managers and scientists that the long-standing policy of aggressive wildfire suppression has contributed to a decline in forest health, an increase in fuel loads in some forests, and wildfires that are more difficult and expensive to control.”
However, it adds, “key elements of federal fire policy remain unchanged.”
“Smokey Bear needs a more nuanced message and substantial campaign funds,” the article states.
Indeed, Smokey’s message has become more nuanced, and his website includes pages like “Fire in Nature,” “Benefits of Fire” and “Fire Science” alongside “Prevention How-Tos.”
“Some ecosystems depend on periodic fires,” it reads. “In these fire-adapted areas, fire promotes plant and wildlife diversity and burns away accumulations of live and dead plant material.”
To help Smokey Bear ring in his 75th, find more information and a schedule of events in a region near you by visiting smokeybear.com.