For more than 70 years, Smokey Bear has been the face of the National Forest Service’s wildfire prevention campaign. The cuddly, ranger-hatted bear appears in posters, commercials, and brochures, warning people about forest fires and their responsibilities when camping or hiking. Smokey even visits local schools, teaching children about the danger of playing with matches.
But while the lovable cartoon bear has become an American icon, few realize the true story behind his creation.
On May 4, 1950, a fire broke out in the Capitan Mountains of southern New Mexico. The result of a carelessly tossed cigarette, the fire swept through the heavily forested area, burning almost 14,000 acres of land. As crews from New Mexico and Texas battled the blaze, a report came in about a lone bear cub being spotted near the fire line. Before rescue could occur, however, the blaze swelled, trapping thirty firefighters–and the cub–inside a fire storm. The firefighters survived by laying facedown on a rocky hill. The cub, unfortunately, took refuge in a tree. When the worst of the fire had passed, the firefighters found the cub alive but badly burned by the charred wood, his paws and hind feet blistered and raw.
The cub was flown by private plane to Dr. Edwin J. Smith, a veterinarian in Santa Fe, who bandaged his seared paws and provided him with shelter until his recovery. Under the care of Dr. Smith and his new “foster parent” Ray Bell, who was the chief of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the tiny cub healed with a steady diet of honey and milk. News outlets across the country caught wind of the story, and soon the bear became an unlikely celebrity, known by the name of “Hotfoot Teddy” and, eventually, “Smokey Bear.”
Weekly stories updated readers on the cub’s progress and visitors flocked to the Department of Game and Fish to get a glimpse of the miracle bear. Letters poured in from all over the country, offering prayers for recovery and thanking the rescuers for saving Teddy’s life. As his popularity grew, it wasn’t hard to see that the tiny cub, still limping from the burns on his feet, spoke more powerfully about the dangers of forest fires than any pamphlet ever could.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture
By June, Smokey had fully recovered from his injuries and was flown to the National Zoological Gardens in Washington, D.C. As the face of fire prevention, Smokey’s popularity only increased. He was so popular, in fact, that he was given his own zip code, owing to the number of letters he received each day from admiring fans.
Upon his death in 1976, Smokey was returned to the Capitan Mountains, where he was buried at the newly constructed Smokey Bear Historical Park, located inside the town of Capitan, not far from where he was discovered as cub.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Wright, 2014
Even now, Smokey is one of the most popular and recognizable ad campaigns in the United States. In fact, he was named “Most Valuable Icon” at the Ad Council’s national event on October 3, 2018—over forty years after the real Smokey Bear’s death. He remains the living embodiment of fire prevention, his cautionary story a reminder about the responsibility we all have to the world around us.