The life and times of Smokey the Bear

The Need for a Mascot

After the Big Blowup in 1910, a devastating wildfire that burned nearly three million acres of land, the United States began to initiate a war on fire. As a result, their goal was full suppression of fire in all aspects. After the film Bambi was released in 1942, Walt Disney allowed the government to use his deer character in public service campaigns for preventing wildfires. However, after one year Disney took the character back which led to the need for a new mascot.

Smokey the Bear was the government’s answer. The new bear’s name was inspired by “Smokey” Joe Martin, a New York City Fire Department Deputy Chief. Martin is recognized as a hero among many firefighters for frequently making bold rescues at the cost of injuring himself.

The need for widespread civilian wildfire education was necessary due to the fact that so many well-equipped men were already overseas battling in World War II. For this reason, the West Coast needed to educate its people in hopes that it would prevent fires from starting in the first place.


Smokey’s Beginnings

Smokey was first introduced to the public through World War II-style propaganda posters. His debut poster, released in 1944, featured Smokey wearing jeans and a ranger hat while putting out a small fire with a water bucket. The text below the drawing reads, “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!”. Shorty after, another poster appeared with Smokey mimicking the famous Uncle Sam “We Want You” poster.

The first poster released in 1944 featuring Smokey the Bear
The first poster released in 1944 featuring Smokey the Bear

Much to the campaign’s benefit, a living symbol of Smokey was found in 1950. A small black bear was found injured in the Capitan Gap fire of New Mexico. The cub was nursed back to health by staff.  The black bear cub was the new, living Smokey the Bear. The bear had a story featured in Life magazine and soon became a national celebrity. Soon, he moved to the National Zoo in Washington to live out his days.

The public response to the real Smokey was tremendous. Over his 26 years living at the zoo he received millions of visitors and fan mail. As a result, the government issued him his own postal ZIP code for the massive amounts of mail he received.

The Legacy of Smokey

As the years went on Smokey’s image was used more and more frequently. He was featured on television shows, commercials, and in 1984 was even honored with a U.S. postage stamp. The stamp featured the famous bear holding onto a burned tree.


The living representation of Smokey the Bear in the Summer of 1984
The living representation of Smokey the Bear in the Summer of 1984

Smokey was buried in his hometown of Capitan, New Mexico after his death in August of 1990. To honor his legacy, the town holds the “Smokey Bear Days” celebration every year. The event raises awareness about environmental issues such as wildfires with fun music, contests, and vendors. Although his living representation has passed, Smokey’s fire prevention legacy still lives on today.


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rebecca-hext is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival