Rudolph A. Wendelin, 90, who during a 40-year career as an artist with the U.S. Forest Service became best known as the "caretaker" of firefighting icon Smokey the Bear, died Aug. 31 at the Iliff nursing home in Falls Church. He lived in Arlington.

He died as a result of injuries he received Aug. 18 in an automobile accident on Interstate 64 in Norfolk. He was in the Norfolk area visiting family.

A spokesman for the Virginia State Police said that Mr. Wendelin was riding in the back seat of his car when his daughter lost control of the vehicle and collided with a truck and a divider. The spokesman said the interstate was wet and slippery because of heavy rains that had ended a short time before, which may have contributed to the accident. The accident is still under investigation, police said.

Mr. Wendelin, who was taken to a Norfolk hospital before being transferred to Iliff, was the only person seriously injured in the accident, police said.

Mr. Wendelin joined the Forest Service in Milwaukee in 1933 and transferred to Washington in 1937. Following World War II service as a Navy artist, he resumed his Forest Service career as the man in charge of Smokey Bear, whom the Forest Service had come up with in 1945 as its "spokesman" in the fight against forest fires. The bear's slogan, "Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires," became one of the most familiar and imitated of all time.

Under Mr. Wendelin's guidance, the bear changed. What had originally been a baby bear and then a full-grown animal with long snout, fangs and fearsome claws became a bear with more human features. By the 1950s, the bear (now with the middle name "the") sported a ranger's hat and belted bluejeans. His paws had become hands, in which he always carried a shovel, to better protect America's forests.

The bear's demeanor, while never fearsome, was always as solemn as his job and message. He seemed to move with ponderous dignity and spoke slowly in a deep and powerful voice--a TV voice that belonged to longtime WMAL radio personality Jackson Weaver.

Mr. Wendelin, in a 1995 interview with The Washington Post, said that Smokey's influence could be compared with that of the animals in Aesop's fables and that his message was as old as the Bible itself.

Smokey's popularity under Mr. Wendelin's guidance was undeniable. He appeared on government posters, postage stamps and television. He also appeared in magazines, "spoke" on the radio and was used in various teaching materials. He even appeared in a movie. The government also licensed his likeness for use on such commercial products as school lunch boxes.

Eventually, his popularity reached the point where he was awarded his own Zip code, 20252.

Mr. Wendelin oversaw Smokey's activities until he retired from the Forest Service in 1973. A sculptor, he designed government awards. He also designed five commemorative U.S. postage stamps and co-designed a sixth.

He was a 38-year member of the Washington Society of Landscape Painters and a member of Community Church of Washington.

In retirement, Mr. Wendelin continued to be associated with Smokey. He drew calendars and sketched illustrations for a book featuring the bear. The 1995 Post story noted that his home featured Gold Smokey and Silver Smokey Forest Service awards for his work in fire prevention and that his sun porch featured a life-size "stuffed" Smokey.

Mr. Wendelin was the recipient of numerous awards from the government and a variety of patriotic organizations for his contributions to the Smokey campaign.

He was a native of Kansas and had attended the University of Kansas.

Survivors include his wife, Carrol, of Arlington; two sons, Michael, of Lodi, Calif., and David, of Asheville, N.C.; a daughter, Elizabeth Wendelin of Horsham, Pa.; a brother; a sister; and three grandchildren.