Smokey Bear has been educating Americans about the dangers of fires for longer than most of us have been alive. In fact, the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign of all time in the United States. Created in 1944, Smokey, usually depicted pouring a bucket of water on a campfire and admonishing that “only you can prevent forest fires” soon became recognized around the world.
But, how did Smokey Bear become Smokey the Bear? In the spring of 1950, a crew of firefighters battling a wildfire in the mountains of New Mexico were trapped by the raging fire. They survived by taking cover in a rockslide while the fire burned around them for over an hour. When it had finally passed, they discovered a small bear cub that had tried to escape the fire by climbing a tree. He was alive but badly burned. The New Mexico Department of Fish and Game heard about the cub and helped get him medical care. Even though this was nearly a half century before the birth of social media, Smokey’s story went viral. He ended up in the National Zoo in Washington D.C. and became the real life Smokey Bear.
Smokey Bear had so many fans and received so much attention, including numerous gifts of honey, that the post office had to assign him his own zip code. Soon the popular song bearing his name was released by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins. And this is where Smokey Bear became Smokey the Bear — another syllable was needed here to maintain the rhythm of the chorus.
With a Ranger’s hat and shovel
and a pair of dungarees,
you will find him in the forest
always sniffin’ at the breeze.
People stop and pay attention
when he tells ’em to beware,
’cause ev’rybody knows that
he’s the Fire Prevention Bear.
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,
That was how he got his name.
The advertising campaign changed through the years. Starting with “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires”, it became “Remember… Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires” in 1947 and remained unchanged until 2001. Then, in response to massive outbreaks of wildfires, it was changed one more time to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires”, which is the message it presents today.
As for little Smokey Bear, he lived to a ripe old age in the National Zoo. When he died, in 1976, he was returned home to the mountains of New Mexico, and he was buried in the Smokey Bear Historical Park. His legend lives on and continues to educate and increase awareness about the dangers of wildfires and the recognition that prevention continues to be up to us.
If you would like to listen to the Smokey the Bear song, please watch the video below at full volume!