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November 5, 2020
Allen Mann

Smokey the Bear

Forest fires have devastated the American West in 2020.

Smokey Bear used to say, “Remember… Only you can prevent Forest Fires.”

That was the slogan of the U.S. Forest Service for many years with the cartoon character, Smokey Bear. The Smokey Bear campaign dates back to 1944 and is the longest running public service announcement in U.S. history. The campaign began as a prevention message during World War II because many of our firefighters were serving in the armed forces, leaving few at home to fight forest fires.

Smokey’s slogan has changed over the years.

In 1944 it was "Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires". In 1947 it changed to "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires" and was the slogan that most of us were familiar with for over 50 years.

In 2001 Smokey’s slogan changed again to simply "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires."

We usually think of Smokey as a cartoon character with a forest ranger hat, blue jeans and a shovel but did you know that Smokey was a real bear?

The original Smokey was born sometime in the Spring of 1950 in the Lincoln National Forest, near Capitan, New Mexico. He was a cub when he was found clinging to a charred tree from a forest fire near Capitan. His paws and hind legs were burned from the fire and he was all alone.

The small cub was rescued from the tree and taken to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he was cared for by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Ranger, Ray Bell and his wife, Ruth. They were aided by a local veterinarian, Dr. Edwin J. Smith and with the love and care of Dr. Smith and the Bell family, Smokey was nursed back to health.

The story of the young cub was picked up by national news agencies and Smokey the Bear became an instant celebrity.

He was offered a new home at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. where he lived a great life. He was given a mate named “Goldie” but the couple was never able to produce a cub so they adopted a cub “Little Smokey” that had also been rescued from the Lincoln National Forest.

Smokey received millions of visitors at the National Zoo and so much mail (over 13,000 letters a week!) from his fans, that in 1964 the United States Postal Service gave him his own zip code – 20252 which is still in use today.

Smokey lived at the National Zoo until his death on November 9, 1976. His remains were returned to his home of Capitan, New Mexico where Smokey was buried in the Smokey Bear Historical Park that is run by the New Mexico State Forestry Division. The plaque on his grave marker reads:

“This is the resting place of the first living Smokey Bear… the living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation.”
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