Smokey Bear greets visitors to the Forest Service Information Center in Washington, D.C. (USDA Forest Service)

Real black bears don’t live to be 70 years old. But a pretend black bear named Smokey Bear, who was born out of a desire to help save U.S. forests, turns 70 on Saturday.

One of the most recognized characters in the United States, Smokey has been a spokesman (or spokesbear?) for the U.S. Forest Service since 1944. The Forest Service is the part of the government that manages national forests, where people go to camp and hike.

Wildfires in those forests can burn millions of acres of land a year, so the Forest Service created Smokey to help spread the word on how to prevent fires. That means no playing with matches and always making sure your campfire is out when you’re done with it.

At first Smokey’s slogan, or what he always said, was, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.” But in 1947, Smokey’s slogan changed to, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.” That’s the slogan that your mom and dad probably know. In 2001, his words changed slightly, and “forest fires” became “wildfires.” His look, which includes an easy-to-recognize ranger hat, has not changed much over the years.

Forests are important

Preventing wildfires is important because trees are a natural resource. We need them in order to make such things as paper for math quizzes and science books. It’s also important to preserve forests so that everyone can enjoy them. And a big wildfire can put people’s lives at risk, especially firefighters. But maybe the most important reason to prevent wildfires is simply because people need trees to live. You’ll remember from science class that trees produce the oxygen that we breathe.

Smokey Bear’s looks haven’t changed much over the years since this 1948 poster. He still wears his easy-to-recognize ranger hat. (USDA Forest Service)

Although some wildfires are started naturally, such as when lightning hits a tree, most wildfires are started by people. That’s why even today, Smokey’s message is important. And it seems to be working. Since Smokey started his work, wildfires have decreased by nearly one-third, Forest Service reports.

“As these children develop into . . . adults, it’s in their best interest to know the cost of . . . wildfires,” said Fred Hernandez, who works for the Forest Service.

A real Smokey

In a city such as Washington, you may feel like you’re far away from the big wildfires Smokey is talking about. And you are. Most of them are in the hot, dry and windy forests in states such as California and Oregon. But Virginia loses 8,000 to 10,000 acres of forest and grassland each year to wildfires, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry. And Maryland officials say fires destroy about 4,000 acres a year in that state.

Washington also has a connection to Smokey. In 1950, a young bear cub was trapped in a New Mexico fire. He climbed a tree to escape the flames but suffered burns on his back legs and paws. Firefighters saved him and named him Smokey. He came to live at the National Zoo until his death in 1976.

Kids have been writing to Smokey Bear, the character, for years. The big, cuddly bear even has his own Zip code. That’s how important people think he is. You can see his posters around the city today. Be on the lookout. He’ll be there, looking down at you in a bus stop with his gentle face, reminding you, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

Moira McLaughlin


It’s not every year a famous bear turns 70! Here are some fun ways to celebrate!

What: A birthday party with cake and Smokey himself, and everyone is invited!

When: Friday 1 to 3 p.m.

Where: Whitten Building, 12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW.

How much? Free

Before or after the party, go see Smokey’s office and posters that made him famous.

Where: U.S. Forest Service Information Center, 1400 Independence Avenue SW.

When: Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m. to
4:15 p.m.

How much? Free

Still want more Smokey? Write him a birthday letter, and he will write you back!

Send it to Smokey Bear, Washington, D.C. 20252.