Smokey Bear endures for generations

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By: 

Roger VanHaren, Times Herald Columnist

“Grandpa, what’s Smokey’s middle name?”

“I don’t know, Ella, what is Smokey’s middle name?”

“It’s THE, silly! You know, Grandpa, Smokey the Bear!”

Uproarious giggling comes from 5-year-old Ella. She’s 13 now and probably doesn’t remember her joy at making me laugh way back then.

A couple of years ago, I started writing a column about Smokey the Bear, but never finished it. Then a few weeks ago, one of my readers (maybe my only one?), Heidi Freeby, emailed: “We were up in Marinette County this weekend and going through Oconto… made me think of you.

“I’m sure you’re a fan of Smokey the Bear. Didn’t his slogan used to be ‘Only You can Prevent Forest Fires’? I remember seeing him as a kid and traveling with my parents on many summer vacations. It seems now that some of the signs read ‘wild fires.’ What’s up with that? What’s the difference between a wild fire and a forest fire? Is one truly ‘wild’? Is a forest fire now a ‘wild fire’ because someone was careless?”

Well, first of all, Heidi, I’m from Oconto Falls, not Oconto, but your note prompted me to resurrect my notes, and here’s what came out. And people ask me all the time, “Where do you get your ideas?” From people like Heidi!

So, anyway, I searched around and found out that Smokey Bear (often called Smokey the Bear or just Smokey) is a mascot of the United States Forest Service created to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires. Smokey was created in 1944 with the slogan, “Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” In 1947, Smokey Bear’s slogan was changed to: “Remember… Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In April 2001, the message was updated to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” So there’s your answer, Heidi.

Why the change to “wildfires” instead of “forest fires”? I couldn’t find an answer to that question, but maybe it has to do with the many wildfires which plague the western part of our country. Many of them do not necessarily involve forests. They often involve vast areas of plains and even residential areas. So Smokey wants us to be careful about all “wild” fires, I guess.

While I was nosing around on the Internet, I found an interesting article about how Smokey came into being. This goes back to 1942, when Walt Disney produced his first feature-length animated film, “Bambi.” In the film, the beloved creatures of the Bambi story are threatened by a monstrous forest fire. After the film came out, Disney allowed his characters to be used in forest fire prevention public service announcements, but that was for just one year, so the government had to come up with a new symbol. That’s when they chose a bear, and they named him after a New York City fireman, Smokey Joe Martin, who suffered serious burns and was blinded during a heroic rescue in 1922.

I also read that during the 1950s and 1960s, the Ad Council sponsored radio advertisements, featuring Smokey Bear “in conversation” with prominent American celebrity stars such as Bing Crosby, Art Linkletter, Dinah Shore, Roy Rogers and many others.

And here’s an interesting piece of trivia: Smokey was originally drawn wearing the campaign hat of the U.S. Forest Service (which was in turn derived from the cavalry who protected the early U.S. National Parks), but the hat itself later became famous by association with the Smokey cartoon character. As such, it is sometimes today called a “Smokey Bear” hat by both the military service branches and state police who still employ it. So, truck drivers on their CB radios began to call state police officers “Smokey” or “bears.”

One last bit of trivia. For Smokey’s 50th anniversary in 1994, he was honored with a U.S. postage stamp that pictured a cub hanging onto a burned tree, and a commercial for his 50th anniversary portrayed woodland animals about to have a surprise birthday party for Smokey, with a cake with candles. When Smokey comes blindfolded, he smells smoke. Not realizing it is birthday candles for his birthday, he uses his shovel to destroy the cake. When he takes off his blindfold, he sees that it was a birthday cake for him and apologizes.

That’s probably way more information than anyone needs, so I’m ending this column with a thank you to my readers who constantly remind me of why I write. I love feedback and suggestions.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.