remember: only you can prevent wildfires!

Everyone, welcome our special picnic guest for today, Smokey Bear!

This tireless ursine has been working steadily since 1944, raising public awareness to protect the nation’s forests. He especially wanted to be here today, after we received a letter from my penpal, Jean, who lives in Santa Cruz, California.

Apparently there are 1700 fires burning in California right now — two of them within a 20-mile radius of Jean’s home. They have been on mandatory water rationing for the last 3 years, while experiencing their 6th year of drought. The fire department simply does not have the men, equipment, or the water, to fight all these fires, and it’s still early in the season. Jean lives with constant smoke and has to wash the ash from her garden lettuce. Every day she thinks: “I sure hope we survive this.”

Though extremely arid conditions, lightning, and changing weather patterns may contribute to wildfires, nine out of ten are caused by humans. That’s why continuing efforts to educate Americans about safe practices indoors and outdoors is critical. Smokey Bear is the longest running public service ad campaign in American history, and it has reduced the number of acres lost to fires annually from 22 million to 4 million.


Smokey’s 1944 debut poster, illustrated by Albert Staehle

Am I saying his name wrong? Not now, but I had been my entire life! The official name for the mascot was and always has been “Smokey Bear.” But in 1952, the writing team of Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote a song about Smokey, and added “the” to keep the song’s rhythm. Confusion has reigned ever since.

Did you know there was a living symbol of Smokey? Back in 1950, a black bear cub was rescued from a raging fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, which destroyed 17,000 acres. The cub was originally called Hotfoot Teddy (his paws and hind legs were burned), but he was later renamed after the mascot. He lived at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., for 26 years, and is now buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park.

Ever since the public found out about the real-life Smokey, the character has been a big part of American pop culture. He has appeared in cartoons, comic strips, and books, and has been on the radio and TV for the Ad Council. In 1994, Smokey was honored with his own postage stamp, and today he even has his own zip code: 20252. The best part of Smokey merchandising is that because of the Smokey Bear Act of 1952, all royalties go to continuing education on forest fire prevention.

On August 9th, Smokey Bear will be 64 years old. His original slogan, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” was changed in 2001 to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” Visit his website to learn more about fire safety, take the Smokey pledge, or use Google Earth to see the wildfires burning today. There is also a wonderful example of one of Smokey’s television ads, circa 1960’s, here. To share Smokey’s story with children, check out this book:

by Sue Houser (M.T. Publishing, 2007), all ages, 40 pp.

 (Portion of the proceeds benefits Smokey Bear Forest Fire Prevention Program)

Hopeful thoughts, prayers and hugs to you, Jean, and all those currently being threatened by wildfires. And thanks, Smokey, for continuing to be a strong and powerful presence in public service advertising!


I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country — its soil and minerals, in forests, waters and wildlife.

6 thoughts on “remember: only you can prevent wildfires!

  1. My thoughts are with Jean and everyone as well.
    I used to have a crush on Smokey when I was three. I wanted to marry him. Then I moved on to Ben, this bear from the old TV show Grizzly Adams.


  2. That’s adorable (like you). But I’m sure Smokey was crushed when your affections switched over to Ben. Wasn’t Grizzly the guy who ate tree bark or something?


  3. I live 20 minutes away from your penpal, and this year has been pretty frightening. Thankfully, our house has never been threatened, and the one friend who had to evacuate got to go back to a complete house a few days later.
    We truly appreciated all the people (and we joined them) choosing NOT to do fireworks on the 4th, even where they were legally allowed to.


  4. Wow, I didn’t realize you lived that close to Santa Cruz. Since I’m on the East Coast, it is hard to imagine living day to day with this type of threat hanging over your head. I remember when my half sister lived in Malibu; she wrote about days when a fire was heading their way, and they spent hours hosing down their roof. Luckily, their house was not damaged. A drought in California, and floods in the Midwest. Hard to fathom. Glad your friend’s house was okay, and that so far you haven’t been threatened.


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