The untold story of Smokey the Bear
FeatureAuthor: Steven Shaw
Only you can prevent Forest Fires! We all know the familiar slogan and can easily picture Smokey the Bear walking around with a shovel, shirtless in blue jeans with his flat-brimmed hat encouraging children and adults alike to be careful not to spark a fire. While everyone knows of Smokey, few know there was an actual living Smokey the Bear - nearly 70 years ago the American legend was literally pulled from ashes of a New Mexico forest fire.
In early May of 1950, the Capitan Gap Fire erupted in the Lincoln National Forest when a cook stove overheated. At its worst, the flames were fanned by wind gusts of more than 65 miles per hour causing the fire to jump the line of the crew fighting the fire (the firefighters had to bury themselves to escape the flames). When all was said and done the Capitan Gap Fire ultimately blackened around 17,000 acres. After about a week of battling the fire, crews noticed something that would eventually add a face to the wildfire prevention effort and thrust it into the national spotlight. A badly-singed black bear cub, barely bigger than a boot, was found clinging frightened and burnt to a charred tree. This cub forever changed wildfire prevention… a living symbol of the devastation wildfires cause not just to the land but also to wildlife. The tiny bear captured the hearts of the nation and the attention of the world.
The burnt black bear cub weighed just five pounds when he was found. His fur was scorched and his paws were badly blistered. The tiny cub was originally named "Hotfoot Teddy" by his rescuers because of those burnt paws. The fearful and injured cub was brought back to the fire camp and turned over to New Mexico Game Warden, Ray Bell. Bell knew the little fella was in desperate need of medical attention and quickly swept him off to Santa Fe to a visit a veterinarian. Veterinarian Dr. Ed Smith treated the cub’s burns, however, it was Warden Bell’s wife Ruth and their daughter Judy whose gentle touch got the cub to eat. Pictures of the cub sitting with 4 year old Judy Bell would melt the hearts of the nation and raise the cub to celebrity status. The little cub, now named Smokey, was shining the bright light of public opinion on fire prevention and turning it into a national issue.
Named Smokey after a USFS poster bear, the cub was moved to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where he would become the symbol of fire prevention. As the years passed, his popularity never stopped growing. In fact Smokey received buckets and buckets of fan mail! So much in fact that the Postal Service gave him his own zip code 20252 (the President of the United States is the only other dedicated zip code). In the early 1960’s, the USFS hoped to usher in the heir to the Smokey the Bear title and introduced Smokey to an orphaned female black bear name “Goldie,” coincidentally also from New Mexico. The two never had any babies, so in 1971 the USFS brought in another orphaned black bear and named it “Little Smokey.” The Forest Service advertised it as the couple’s adopted son. Little Smokey’s training was limited, because in 1976 Smokey the Bear passed away of old age… 26 years after being found clinging to a blackened tree. At the time of his death more than six million kids had signed up to be Smokey the Bear Junior Rangers and to help him prevent forest fires! Little Smokey went on to serve as the symbol of fire prevention until his death in the early 1990’s. After his death the Forest Service ended the practice of keeping living Smokey the Bears, however his message remains strong.
Smokey the Bear is a part of going camping in our National Forests. He is synonymous with enjoying the outdoors safely and is a part of our culture. It’s funny to think, that something so ingrained in the fabric of nature lovers started with a five lb black bear left scared, injured and alone in the middle of a forest.