- January 25, 2023
It is something of an irony that the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California’s history occurred during National Fire Prevention Week, October 8-14. It is also ironic that it was 70 years ago, August 1947, that one of the most well known slogans in American history, “Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires,” was
It is something of an irony that the deadliest and most destructive wildfires in California’s history occurred during National Fire Prevention Week, October 8-14. It is also ironic that it was 70 years ago, August 1947, that one of the most well known slogans in American history, “Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires,” was coined. That true American hero, Smokey Bear, uttered the famous phrase.
Actually, the slogan was invented before the bear. Believe it or not, the first ‘fire prevention’ animal was Bambi. Yes, the Disney Bambi. Walt Disney allowed the lovable white-tailed deer to appear in fire prevention public service campaigns in 1942. But Disney only permitted the image for one year, and in 1944 the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign decided to use a bear.
The birthday of “Smokey Bear” is considered to be when the debut poster was released on August 9, 1944, illustrated by Albert Staehle. He looks much as he does today, wearing jeans and the campaign (drill instructor) hat. It was not until 1947, however, until the slogan associated with Smokey Bear was coined: “Remember…only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
What really caused the iconic image and slogan to take off was an actual bear cub found in 1950 in a wildfire in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. The poor creature had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been badly burned. He was nursed back to health and after Life magazine did a feature on the little bear cub, he became a national celebrity.
Indeed, he was flown to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. where he lived for 26 years, receiving millions of visitors, and so many letters, as many as 13,000 a week, the post office had to give him his own zip code! He died on November 9, 1976, and his remains were taken back to his home in New Mexico.
However, it is safe to say that the man, or in the case, the bear, was not as great as the myth. According to the Ad Council, he and his message are recognized in the United States by 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of children. And it is true that adults appear to love him as much as children.
My childhood hero was Smokey Bear. When I was three years old, my parents gave me a Smokey stuffed animal, and he became my best friend. My earliest pictures show me holding Smokey. I played with Smokey, slept with Smokey, and once tried to give Smokey a bath. Unfortunately, he was never the same after that, and my mother told me that Smokey had to go “bye-bye.”
With a broken heart for decades, I longed to have Smokey back. My dream came true last year, when I had the opportunity to “become” Smokey the Bear for a presentation on Fire Prevention with the Clinton Township Fire Company at the Montgomery Area Elementary School. Seeing the reaction of the children when they saw Smokey was overwhelming. It was so much fun, I returned again this year during Fire Prevention Week and I had children come up and say, “Hey, Smokey, do you remember me?” It was obvious that they remembered Smokey.
What was even more impressive was when Ron Winder, member of the Clinton Township Fire Company, reviewed fire safety with the kids from kindergarten to sixth grade. As one, the children appeared to recognize a smoke alarm, know that they should call 911 if their home was on fire, “stop, drop, and roll,” if they caught on fire, and even that they should have an established muster point outside their home to go to if their home was on fire. They chanted in unison to each of the questions, seemingly without any hesitation, displaying that fire safety was well embedded in their young minds. Smokey Bear makes fire safety fun to know about.
As a ‘bearer’ of Smokey’s legacy, I want to clarify that his official name is Smokey Bear without the “the.” That was added by two songwriters to a popular song in 1952 to keep the song’s rhythm, and it just stuck. What has also stuck is his enduring image — one of the best known marketing images in American history — a symbol that reminds us of our personal responsibility for fire safety. Thank YOU, Smokey Bear.