The Bugler

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Smokey Bear - Only You!

The most successful public service announcement in the history of the United States has been the campaign by a bear celebrating his 70th birthday this year, Smokey Bear. Forest fires have become a major problem in the last few years and this year the season appears to be starting even earlier. This past week the Sleepy Hollow in and around Wenatchee, Washington was devastated by a wildfire. Alaska is already seeing an active wildfire season and the western United States must brace itself for terrific fires this summer as the severe drought continues and hot, dry and windy conditions are forecast.

Wildfire in the Pacific Northwest. Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.

So Smokey may seem a little corny but according to NPS.gov, "As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans. Some human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, negligently discarded cigarettes and intentional acts of arson. The remaining 10 percent are started by lightning or lava."

The cost of fighting these fires is astronomical. In May 2014, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that the Forest Service and Interior needed to spend an estimated $1.8 billion fighting fires. The final number was surely higher and this only measures the U.S. government's cost of fighting fires. It doesn't measure the costs that local communities spend. And of course it doesn't measure the cost of human injury or life.

Now let's go back to the history of Smokey Bear. You can read all about the story of Smokey Bear at NPS.gov, but the idea that wildfires were a potential problem had been a concern since the turn of the century and the National Park Service had been considering an ad campaign to raise public awareness of the dangers of forest fires. The Walt Disney Company released the movie "Bambi" in 1944 and some of the posters showing the animals running from the fire were popular with the public. This is when the decision to find their own animal was made and a bear was chosen and first appeared in print in August 1944. "Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires" was first used as a slogan in 1947.

There was even a real-life Smokey Bear. According to NPS.gov, "One spring day in 1950 in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, an observer in one of the fire towers spotted smoke and called the location into the nearest Ranger Station. The first crew to arrive discovered a major fire being swept along by strong winds. Word spread rapidly and more crews were called to help. Forest Rangers, Army Soldiers, New Mexico State Game and Fish Department employees and civilian volunteers worked together to control the raging fire. During one of the lulls in the fire fighting, there was a report of a lonely cub seen wandering near the fire line. The little cub had been caught in the path of the fire. He had taken refuge in a tree that was now nothing but a charred, smoking snag. His climb had saved his life but left him badly burned on the paws and hind legs. The firefighters removed the little bear cub from the burned tree." The story continues that the cub needed veterinary care and, as news spread across New Mexico and then spread across the country, people started calling asking about his progress. In time he made his way to his new home at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where he lived a long life until 1976. He is buried in the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico.

The original Smokey Bear at the National Zoo. Photo by Francine Schroeder for Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain.

Smokey Bear Historical Park

During your summer travels this would be a great place to visit. It has exhibits about the history of Smokey Bear and "exhibits about forest health, forest fires, wildland/urban interface issues, fire ecology, the history of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program and a theater showing a 10-minute film discussing today's fire and forest health issues." See the New Mexico State Forestry website to learn more. The Smokey Bear Historical Park is located on none other than Smokey Bear Boulevard (also known as Highway 380).

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