When my husband and I rolled into tiny Capitan, New Mexico, we came face to face with Smokey the Bear. Yes, I’m referring to one of the most recognizable icons of our popular culture, the figurehead for fire prevention. Word from the Ad Council that created Smokey is that 95% of adults and 77% of children recognize Smokey. Capitan hosts the Smokey the Bear Museum and the Smokey the Bear Historical Park.
Smokey the Bear is an American advertising mascot created by the Ad Council and artist Albert Staehle back in the mid 1940s. Early in World War II, the Empire of Japan attempted to use wildfires as possible weapons by setting the coastal forests in southwest Oregon ablaze. This first effort wasn’t successful but the Japanese military renewed their wildfire strategy late in the war. From November 1944 to April 1945, they launched some 9,000 fire balloons into the jet stream. Only a small percentage of the bombs reached the U.S but one of the bombs killed five school children and their teacher near Bly, Oregon. The Smokey ads were originally designed to educate the affected communities on how to prevent fires, since most of the able bodied men were in the military and unavailable to help with fighting the fires.
In 1950, the Smokey campaign found a living symbol. A black bear cub survived the major fire at Capitan Gap and was found either by Forest Service personnel or soldiers helping fight the fire. He was nursed back to health and became the first of two living symbols of the Smokey the Bear icon. The first Smokey Bear lived at the National Zoo in Washington, D. C. for twenty six years until his death in 1976. The second Smokey lived there from 1962 to 1990. Both bears were returned to Capitan for burial.
Through the years, as well as educating the public about fire safety and avoiding wild fires, Smokey has been honored with a postage stamp. His popularity was such that he was given his own zip code. He has been the inspiration for children’s books, cartoons and comic books, public service commercials, and songs. He’s been featured in television series, and appeared in movies. Small huggable replicas of Smokey have accompanied innumerable children to nap time and to bed. Interest in making a buck off of Smokey reached the point that Congress in 1952 passed the Smokey Bear Act that removed Smokey from the public domain.
With our Wet Mountain Valley as dry as I’ve seen it and the Smokey the Bear sign at the corner of Hermit Lane and Highway 96 in Silver Cliff warning that fire danger is “Very High,” this seems a good time the bring Smokey into public awareness again. Hopefully Smokey’s message will help people be careful about small campfires and carelessly thrown cigarettes.