Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear,
Prowlin’ and a-growlin’ and a-sniffin’ the air.
He can find a fire before it starts to flame,
That’s why they call him Smokey
’Cause that’s how he got his name.
ؙ— From “Smokey the Bear,” 1952
For 75 years, Smokey Bear has been the U.S. Forest Service’s iconic representative for wildfire prevention, but he wasn’t named for a burned orphan bear cub as many people believe. In fact, the reverse is true.
Smokey grew out of the Wildfire Prevention Campaign started during World War II when most experienced wildfire fighters were off fighting Germans and Japanese.
With America’s forests and grasslands protected by only inexperienced novices, the goal of the campaign was to reduce the number of fires they would have to fight by getting the general public to be more careful with fire and ignition sources.
The first icons were characters from the Disney film “Bambi” — which features a terrifying wildfire scene — that were loaned to the campaign in 1942 for one year only.
The critter chosen to succeed them was a bear named Smokey, but he wasn’t based on the rescued bear cub later associated with him.
Smokey was named for “Smokey” Joe Martin, a New York City Fire Department firefighter who suffered severe burns and blindness in a heroic 1922 rescue.
It wasn’t until 1950 that Smokey’s living symbol was discovered: a 3-month-old black bear cub with burned paws and hind legs that had climbed a tree to escape the Capitan fire in New Mexico.
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Rescued by firefighters, the cub initially was named Hotfoot Teddy, but he was later renamed Smokey after the iconic bear of the advertising campaign.
He became famous when he was flown to his permanent home at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Smokey became so popular with the public that he received an average of 13,000 letters a week — so many the U.S. Postal Service eventually gave him his own ZIP code.
Smokey died in 1976 and was buried in Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico.
He was replaced by Little Smokey, renamed Smokey Bear II, who was the “adopted son” of Smokey and lifelong companion Goldie.
Smokey Bear II died in 1990 and was not replaced.
The Wildfire Prevention Campaign is the longest-running public service campaign in U.S. history, and the Smokey Bear element of the campaign is considered one of the most powerful of all public service advertising.
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