Smokey Bear is 75!

How well do you know this beloved mascot of fire prevention? Smokey Bear was initially created as a World War II era fire prevention campaign after Japanese raids on Pearl Harbor and their shelling of an oil field near Santa Barbara, California, in 1941 and 1942, respectively. Forest Service ranks, like many other entities nationwide, were depleted due to men enlisted overseas to fight in the war. This meant less people and heavy equipment available to fight forest fires and the nation was very concerned with the prospect of human-caused fires. The Forest Service thus looked to the public for help in fire prevention.

The forest supervisor of the Angeles National Forest approached the Wartime Advertising Council for help. The Wartime Advertising Council, the Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters launched a nationwide fire prevention campaign in 1942. The group tried several posters and wartime slogans but finally settled on the use of a bear in 1945. They gave him the first name “Smokey” in honor of a respected assistant chief of the New York City Fire Department. Smokey Bear was featured in magazine and newspaper advertisements and even had air time on many radio stations.

In 1950, a human-caused fire raged out of control on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. It forced a crew of 25 firefighters to seek refuge on a rock slide. After the flames passed, the firefighters surveyed the damage and noticed a small bear cub high in a tree. The bear was badly burned but the firefighters retrieved him and transported him to a veterinarian. The crew named the cub Smokey Bear after the bear in the fire prevention campaign. Once the little bear recovered enough to travel, he was taken to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

The story of Smokey Bear became national news. Many people were interested in the cub’s condition and letters and calls were pouring in. He received so many gifts and letters that the post office gave him his own zip code. Smokey became a living symbol of fire prevention until he retired in 1975. He died later that year and was buried on the Lincoln National Forest near the spot he was first found.

In 1952, Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act, which was intended to protect Smokey’s image. The act licensed the use of Smokey Bear’s image and required permission to wear the Smokey Bear costume. Smokey Bear is administered by the USDA Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council.

Smokey Bear’s message continues to remain relevant to this day. He is featured in advertisements, on billboards, in YouTube videos and he even became an emoji this year. He visits schools, fairs and events across the nation and is one the most recognizable characters worldwide. To learn more check our Smokey website, Stop by your local Forest Service office for free handouts and memorabilia to share with family and friends, or call the Sheridan office at 307-674-2600 to schedule a Smokey visit for your community event. Look for local sightings in parades and events this summer and remember “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”


Sara Evans Kirol is the public affairs officer with Bighorn National Forest.