The Bear Facts

Lily Marcigan: Smokey Bear says, "Only you can prevent forest fires."
Phyllis Nefler: Well, Smokey Bear isn’t going through a horribly messy divorce.

Troop Beverly Hills (1989)


Back in the summer of 1942, the US Forestry Service recognized that getting citizens to help them prevent forest fires was a patriotic thing that ordinary citizens could do to help prevent Hitler from taking over our campsites and such. While it was true that forest fires could help enemy aircraft find solid land at night, the other fact is that most of the Service’s best people had been sent to war, so the ones that remained behind weren’t always equal to the task of putting out those West Coast wildfires. So, they reasoned, why not educate the public on preventing the fires in the first place?

Don't even ask how much money Flower got for his work. It was around that time that the film Bambi first came out. As you may recall, the climax of the film involves a wildfire that Bambi narrowly manages to escape. If you light a match, the Axis wins. As a result of this, it was thought that Bambi would be a pretty good mascot for the US Forestry Service campaign, and posters were made up which used the Disney characters. However, Disney only licensed the characters out for one year, so another mascot for the program had to be located. It was probably around this time that they started to use their fallback “Let’s be racist” position for the posters.  (It likely didn’t help matters that the Japanese actually tried a couple of times to start wildfires on the West Coast, with only minor success.)

At any rate, after about a year, the Forestry Service came up with a mascot—a bear. His name was inspired by New York City Fire Fighter “Smokey” Joe Martin, who had suffered some burns and blindness in a fire some 20 years earlier. That they still wanted to name anything after this guy that much later on, says to me that he must have been one bad-ass fire fighter. Martin died in October 1941, so his memory was still pretty fresh in people’s minds when it came time to name the bear.

His balls were too large to fit in this photo. A digression: because I got curious, I looked him up, and he was, indeed, a master of badassery. This guy was a fire fighter for 46 years, and he’d been in so many dangerous situations that the ambulance corps started giving him Frequent Flyer miles. No kidding, he was hauled away to the hospital nearly two dozen times. Once, in 1898, he went in to a building to rescue a guy who was on a floor that they already knew probably wouldn’t hold him. Sure enough, it didn’t, and neither did the ones below. Joe Martin fell  through 65 feet of burning debris, from the fourth floor to the basement, and when he regained consciousness the next day, he asked “When can I go back to work?” The answer turned out to be four months later. When fighting his last fire in April 1930, he was stopped only by the fact that he was wearing winter clothes and the heat gave him a heart attack.

Anyway, Smokey Bear was pretty much a fully-realized character when they rolled him out in 1944. He was already wearing the jeans and the Ranger hat in his debut poster, and while his face would evolve a little bit over the years (e.g. his snout shortened a little bit to give him more of a friendly, “teddy” look), the “then” picture isn’t remarkably different from the “now” picture. It was in 1947 that the catchphrase was coined: “Remember…only YOU can prevent forest fires.” In 2001 this was amended to the more-inclusive “wildfires”, as a reminder that other areas are capable of burning, too.

But here’s where it gets a little bit real.

In 1950, a fire broke out in Lincoln National Forest, in New Mexico, in a place called Capitan Gap. Capitan Gap is about 17,000 acres of forest; we’re talking on the order of 26 square miles. BIG fire. It was notable for two different events. First, a 24-man crew was out digging firebreaks in the ground. A “firebreak” is essentially a strip of cleared ground which—it is hoped—will stop the spread of a fire by denying it some fuel. At any rate, the fire managed to jump the break, and the men, who were now pretty much surrounded by fire, buried themselves in the dirt from a recent landslide and managed to survive the fire. The other big event is that a small bear cub was spotted running in and out of the fire, trying to get away, until finally he climbed a tree and hung to it on the windward side of the tree. He, too, survived the fire with some singes and other, survivable burn injuries on his paws and hind legs. The bear was flown to Santa Fe for veterinary treatment and nursed back to health. There are conflicting reports with regard to who did the nursing, but it appears to be a ranger named Ray Bell who, with his wife and three children, got most of the credit for it.  Somewhere along the line, the bear’s name changed from “Hotfoot Teddy” to “Smokey Bear”, after the mascot. The story was picked up by Life Magazine and the national news services, and suddenly Smokey was a celebrity.

After his recovery, Smokey was flown in a Piper Cub (heh) to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, including a stopover in St. Louis, Missouri where he spent the night in a specially-prepared zoo enclosure while the plane was serviced and refueled. And, of course, on his arrival in Washington, he received a hero’s welcome. And, of course, he became part of the popular culture. This expanded to the point where songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, in 1952, wrote a song about him called “Smokey the Bear”. Now, until this point he was just “Smokey Bear”, but Nelson and Rollins needed that “the” in order to maintain the song’s beat, so the song was written that way, and it was sung by a few of the popular artists of the time, including Eddy Arnold, who’s totally in the real woods with those kids, and never mind that he’s casting a shadow on the lake:

If you’ve actually taken the time to see the video, you’ll note that the credits point out that the film is a public service announcement from
the USDA, Forestry Service. Therefore the bear’s name should now be “Smokey the Bear” rather than just “Smokey Bear”. However, that same year, because he was attracting commercial interest, an act of Congress took the character out of the public domain and put him in the hands of the Secretary of Agriculture. That act was called the Smokey Bear Act, and it forever cements his official name as “Smokey Bear” without the “the”.

Incidentally, while the Eddy Arnold version of the song isn’t bad, this is my favorite, and the one I hear in my head when I think of the song:

Smokey Bear lived to the ripe old age (for a bear) of 26; after he died his remains were returned to New Mexico for burial. And do you know WHY his remains were sent back? Because Congress voted on a resolution related to it two years earlier.

Stamp issued in 1984. One more thing: if you want, you can still write to Smokey Bear (the mascot, not the late bear). He even has his own ZIP Code in Washington DC so your letter will find him quickly: it’s 20252.