Smokey Bear Historical Park

History of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign

As early as 1902, Americans were being warned about the damages of unwanted human caused forest fires, but no formal campaign aimed at prevention existed.  Then in 1939 a poster entitled "Your Forest-Your Fault" featured a Forest Ranger in the image of Uncle Sam pointing to a raging forest fire.  During the years of 1936-1941 a total of 210,000 forest fires burned over 30 million acres of forest and range land.  Nine out of ten were human caused. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine surfaced off of the coast of Southern California and fired shells near the Los Padres National Forest.  In 1942, the USDA-Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program.  War posters carried fire prevention messages, "Careless Matches Aid the Axis" and "Our Carelessness, their Secret Weapon."  In 1944 the Wartime Advertising Council decided to use an animal to carry the fire prevention message.  Walt Disney agreed to lend the image of Bambi, for a year, to be the first to carry the message. 

On August 9, 1944 a bear was chosen to be the spokesman for forest fire prevention.  The bear was named "Smokey" after a well-known Assistant Fire Chief named Smokey Joe Martin.  The first slogan, "Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires" was developed and artist Albert Staehle became Smokey's creator.  Within a couple of years, another artist named Rudy Wendelin took over as the Smokey Bear artist and stayed with Smokey until his retirement in 1973.  Smokey's message "Remember only you can prevent forest fires" was coined in 1947.

Events on May 9, 1950 changed forever the way Americans would look at the forest fire prevention message. On this day in history, a 5 lb. black bear cub was found after a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains near Capitan, New Mexico.   Named Smokey after the poster bear, the cub was later sent to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. to become the "living symbol" for fire prevention.  By 1952, Congress passed and President Eisenhower signed into law the Smokey Bear Act, public law 359.  This law gave control of the image of Smokey to the Secretary of Agriculture so that there would be no unlawful use of Smokey Bear's image.  To date, millions in royalties have been collected for forest fire prevention education efforts.  One of those education efforts included the Junior Ranger Program, which began in 1953 and encourages children to help Smokey prevent forest fires.  By 1976, well over six million kids had enrolled in the Junior Ranger Program. 

In the late 1950's, a search was underway for a mate for Smokey, and in 1961 "Goldie", an orphaned female black bear also from New Mexico, arrived in Washington to be Smokey's mate.  Sadly no cubs were ever born to the couple and a search was begun to find an adopted son.  By 1964 Smokey's fan mail was so great that he was given his own zip code, 20252.  The only other celebrity to have this honor is the President of the United States.  In 1971, another orphaned black bear was found and sent to Washington, D.C. to become "Little Smokey".  His training lasted for four years when Smokey retired in 1975 after serving for 25 years as the "living symbol" for fire prevention and Little Smokey takes over.  On November 9th, 1976, Smokey passed away and was returned to his hometown of Capitan, New Mexico and is buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park.  1984 marked the 40th birthday of the poster Smokey and was celebrated by a commemorative stamp designed by Rudy Wendelin, with the first day issue being in Smokey's hometown of Capitan.  The story of the "living symbol" closed with the death of Little Smokey on August 11, 1990.  "Little Smokey" was buried in an undisclosed location in Washington, D.C.  The Smokey and Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program turned 50 years old in 1994 and was celebrated all over the United States.  The CFFP is the longest running public service advertising campaign in the history of the Ad Council.

In 2019, the Village of Capitan celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Smokey Bear fire prevention campaign with multiple events, including Smokey Bear LIVE: A Distance Learning Adventure. In 2020 another big milestone will be reached as we celebrate the 70th birthday of the "living symbol" Smokey one of Americas most famous animals! 

The past years have been a time of change for both Smokey and the Village of Capitan. As more and more people continue to build homes in heavily forested areas, Smokey’s message may be more important today than when it was first conceived 75 years ago. Remember, only you can prevent wildfires!

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