Smokey Bear is the longest running public service campaign in the United States, with Smokey’s mission being to raise public awareness to prevent fires and protect our nation’s forests. But Smokey wasn’t the first “spokesanimal” speaking out for fire safety. After the release of the 1942 animated feature film, Bambi, Walt Disney temporarily loaned his characters to the government to appear in fire prevention public service campaigns. But there needed to be a new permanent figure, and staying with the popular animal theme, a bear was chosen. The name “Smokey” was chosen to honor a New York City Fire Department hero, Smokey Joe Martin, who shrugged off blindness and burns in a bold 1922 rescue. August 19, 1944 is considered Smokey’s birthday because that’s when his debut poster was released. The illustration, by Albert Staehle, showed Smokey in dungarees and the campaign hat for which he is famous, dowsing a campfire with a bucket of water. The message underneath reads, “Smokey says-Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” You know the bear from the posters and commercials but did you know there was a real Smokey Bear? In 1950 a careless person started the terrible Capitan Gap wild fire on the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. And on this date, May 9th 1950, amongst the smoldering ashes, where once a great forest once stood, firefighters who barely escaped the blaze themselves, spotted a little bear cub, hind legs and paws singed, clinging to a tree. The firefighters were unable to find the cub’s mother, but they did rescue him and New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Ranger, Ray Bell flew with the little fellow to Santa Fe for veterinary treatment for his burns. The bear stayed with Ranger Bell and his family while recovering, and soon the national press caught wind of the story. It was perhaps inevitable that soon after that, the little bear became the living mascot of the Forest Service and was named Smokey. By the way, the game warden, who took Smokey into his home to recover…Ray Bell? He was originally from…North Dakota.
Dakota Datebook written by Merrill Piepkorn