Smokey the Bear: A Public Service Icon
for More Than 70 Years

If you’re a baby boomer, you probably can’t remember a time when you weren’t aware of Smokey the Bear (or just “Smokey Bear,” as he is sometimes called), the powerful yet lovable forest service mascot.

Whether he confronted you from a TV screen or from an “Uncle Sam Wants You!”-type of poster or billboard, his message was always clear: “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”


U.S. Forest Service Image, Public Domain

Smokey’s wildfire prevention campaign is the longest-running Public Service Advertising campaign in U.S. history. You may have wondered how Smokey got started and….

Where is he now?

In the Beginning…It Was War

Imagine it’s the mid 1940’s, and you’re Lyle F. Watts, the US Forest Service Chief. The war is still raging in Europe and the Pacific. The vast majority of able-bodied men are serving in the armed forces and can’t be spared to fight forest fires in the western United States. What could the US Forest Service do?

Public Domain Image

Realizing that most forest fires were caused by human negligence (see related article, “What (or Who) Caused the Alberta Wildfire?), the Forest Service, under the direction of Mr. Watts, began an ad campaign to educate the public about the dangers of forest fires, in the hope that local communities could prevent the fires from starting in the first place. But they needed a symbol to represent their cause. The Disney Studios allowed the forest service to borrow Bambi, the popular animated deer from its highly successful film, but only for one year. So a new icon was needed.

Keeping with the forest animal theme, the forest service, in cooperation with the Advertising Council, determined that a bear would best represent the fire-prevention campaign, and Smokey was born. The campaign started out relatively small, with a single poster depicting the jeans-clad bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. The caption read, “Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!”

The new campaign caught on, well, like wildfire. Soon the Smokey Bear image began appearing on posters and cards, comic books and postage stamps. The Knickerbocker Toy

U.S. Forest Service Image, Public Domain

Company began producing a Smokey Bear doll. Ideal Toys did them one better by including with their doll a mail-in card whereby children could become “junior forest rangers.” By 1955, a half million kids had applied. Smokey’s popularity continued to grow; he appeared in radio advertisements along with Bing Crosby, Art Linkletter, Dinah Shore and Roy Rogers. He received so much mail that, in 1964, he was given his own zip code.

Smokey’s official slogan was changed in 1947 to “Remember…only YOU can prevent forest fires.” The new slogan remained in place for more than five decades, until it was changed in 2000 to “Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires.” The change was implemented in an effort to expand the campaign focus to include grassland fires as well as forest fires.

Smokey in the Digital Age

Seventy-two years after the birth of this endearing icon, Smokey remains a relevant symbol of wildfire prevention.

In 2008, Smokey was reintroduced as a computer-generated image, targeting consumers aged 18-34. Since the launch of the new campaign, Smokey has been featured on The Today Show, USA Today, and The LA Times. His Facebook page has generated more than 337,000 fans; he has his own You Tube channel and, of course, his own website:

Through it all, Smokey has endured as an iconic piece of Americana; his message has remained as relevant today as it was in 1944.

Doing Our Part

Since the introduction of Smokey in 1944, the campaign has helped reduce the number of acres lost to wildfire by 15.5 million annually.

But we all still need to do our part. One of the things you can do, if you reside in a wildfire-prone area, is to protect your property from the threat of wildfire. The Frontline™ Wildfire Defense System is designed to limit the spread of fire in residential areas. Its protective fire-retardant foam quickly extinguishes embers and other firebrands to keep your property safe.

To borrow from Smokey, “Only YOU Can Protect YOUR Property from Wildfires.”

Isn’t it time you did your part?


Featured Image: National Agricultural Library Photo, Public Domain

National Association of State Foresters and US Forest Service 

The Ad Council

New Mexico State Forestry Division