First off, let’s ditch “the.” It’s officially “Smokey Bear.” The definite article only got shoehorned in there in 1952, when his fame was snowballing and a pair of songwriters penned Smokey his own anthem. They jammed “the” into his name for the song’s rhythm.
Second: Know he only got his job because Bambi was contractually unavailable. Had Walt Disney been a little more open about loaning out his prancing cartoon deer for government work, Americans may have never heard of Smokey Bear or his famous catchphrase: “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
But Bambi had merchandise to hawk at the Magic Kingdom, so Smokey became the face of American forestry — and the longest-running public service campaign in the country’s history.
This month Smokey is popping champagne bottles in celebration of his 74th birthday. But the milestone comes as the bear’s legacy is sunk in doubt. Right now 110 wildfires are blazing through Western states, charring more than 5.7 million acres, The Washington Post reported this week. The current damage total has already overlapped past years, syncing with a wider pattern of larger fires and longer fire seasons, according to The Post.
So as America burns, where’s Smokey Bear?
The recent fires actually highlight an ongoing debate among ecologists about whether Smokey should shoulder some responsibility for the flames now regularly sweeping across natural lands. For much of the last century, Smokey was the pitchman for the federal government’s aggressive wildfire suppression policy. Some scientists believe that tactic, along with climate change, may have contributed to making American forests vulnerable to combustion over the long term. They call it “the Smokey Bear effect.”
To understand the history of modern American fire prevention, you actually have to jump back to the terror and anxiety spilling over the country at the start of World War II. Before the war, fire policy was a regular topic of debate — stop fires or allow controlled burns? — among foresters in the West and Southwest. But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, forestry suddenly became a national security concern.
According to the federal government, in the spring of 1942 Japanese submarines popped up along the West Coast and began shelling Santa Barbara, Calif. The enemy fire landed dangerously close to Los Padres National Forest, igniting concerns among officials that a few well-placed enemy bombs could spark catastrophic fires along the Pacific Coast. The fear was compounded because most of the men who usually fought forest fires were overseas.
The government decided to launch a public campaign promoting hypervigilance among citizens to prevent wildfires. The early campaign, run by the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention, couched preventions in terms of the war effort. Posters warned “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon” and “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy.” One image featured a forest blaze below the glaring (and frankly racist) caricatures of Japanese Supreme Military Leader Hideki Tojo and Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
Another popular poster from this early effort leveraged anthropomorphic cuteness, tapping Disney’s Bambi (“Please Mister, Don’t Be Careless”) for a 1944 campaign. But Walt Disney only licensed his creation for a year. After Bambi’s time was up, government organizers realized they needed a new cuddly face for prevention.
Smokey Bear, created by artist Albert Staehle, made his debut for the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in August 1944. The first poster showed Smokey — decked out in his trademark wide-brimmed park ranger hat, pants, and standing on two legs — pouring a bucket of water over a campfire. “Smokey says — Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!” the caption boasted. By 1947, Smokey’s tagline was updated: “Remember . . . Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
Smokey was soon splashed on posters in parks, buses, roadsides, and on television and radio spots. In 1950, Smokey got a real-world counterpart when New Mexico firefighters battling a blaze discovered a black bear clinging to a charred tree. The animal was nursed back to health, named Smokey, and shipped off to the National Zoo in Washington. He lived there until his death in 1976 as a “living symbol of forest fire prevention” and “an honest to goodness reminder of the danger of forest fires,” actor William Boyd (known for playing the cowboy Hopalong Cassidy) said in a 1953 short film on the cub.
Smokey has been incredibly effective. As Charles E. Little noted in a 1993 article in American Forests, when the federal government’s fire prevention campaign began in the 1940s, fires regularly burned an average of 30 million acres nationally. By 1988, the United States was seeing 7.4 million acres of damage.
But that success is the problem, according to some scientists.
The original Smokey message fostered the idea that all fires are bad and preventable, critics argue. In reality, fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, regularly clearing out old growth. As University of California at Riverside Professor Richard Minnich told Grist in 2016, the government campaign at the height of the Smokey era ignored fire as a natural occurrence.
“Smokey the Bear says, ‘Only you can prevent forest fires,’” Minnich told the website. “Let’s change that last part. Smokey the Bear says, ‘Only you can prevent earthquakes.’ Or how about, ‘Only you can prevent tornadoes’ — except no one thinks that.”
The result is more forest land packed with potential fuel when fires do strike. Most experts now feel controlled burns of forests are the most effective way to clear land and help the health of wildlife.
It’s a reality the government itself has embraced.
In a 2007 paper titled “Be careful what you wish for: the legacy of Smokey Bear,” two USDA Forest Service researchers noted 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.”
Smokey himself has been updated to reflect the more advanced position. In 2001, his catchphrase was updated to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires” instead of forest fires. According to the bear’s official bio, the change was “in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests and to clarify that Smokey is promoting the prevention of unwanted and unplanned outdoor fires versus prescribed fires.”
Smokey continues to be the face of wildfire prevention, starring in a number of commercials in recent years featuring the bear schooling millennials in proper campfire prevention. (See: Smokey and frisbee-tossing millennials; Smokey and social media-obsessed millennials; Smokey and fist-bumping millennials)
Still looking fit and healthy at 74, Smokey probably has his work cut out for him. As The Post reported this week, in the 1980s and 1990s, the average wildfire burned between 40 and 80 acres. This year’s average fire now tops 130 acres.