WASHINGTON – Smokey Bear’s simple message – “Only you can prevent wildfires” – has spread for decades like the blazes he has tried to prevent.
Now as one of America’s best-known icons turns 60 this week, those in charge of protecting America’s forests are seeking to prove that his message is ageless.
To celebrate Smokey’s birthday and reinforce his fire prevention message, forestry and advertising officials are planning a media blitz, children’s parties and contests.
Smokey, a husky brown bear in a tan forest ranger hat and dark blue jeans, first appeared in 1944 and his ads are the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history. Since 1980 alone, more than $1 billion has been given in free advertising time and space to spread his message.
“Smokey Bear is one of the most beloved advertising icons in American history,” said Peggy Conlon, president of The Advertising Council, an industry group that creates and distributes civic-minded publicity campaigns.
“It’s really been a constant message, a slogan and icon, that the American people have been exposed to for 60 years now,” she said.
Smokey’s ageless persona remains as popular as ever. He’s rated as one of the most recognizable figures in America with 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of children aware of him, according to The Advertising Council.
With the help of Smokey, and better fire-fighting technology and forest management practices, the area lost to fires annually has dropped from 22 million acres in 1944 to fewer than 10 million.
Smokey was born in 1944 when a poster showing a bear pouring a bucket of water on a fire was used for the national fire prevention campaign.
In 1950, a living symbol for Smokey was found in the form of a tiny bear cub that was rescued from a tree after a human-caused fire in New Mexico burned 17,000 acres. The cub’s fate received national attention and it was sent to the National Zoo in Washington and became associated with the fire prevention publicity campaign.
OWN ZIP CODE
In fact, Smokey received so much fan mail from around the world that the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own ZIP code. Smokey has grown old gracefully with the benefit of an occasional nip and tuck. His slogan underwent a slight change in 2000 when “forest fires” was replaced with “wildfires” to better reflect that blazes occur in tall grasses and brush in addition to areas with trees.
In much the way famous cartoon characters have been enhanced over the years by computer technology, early Smokey images have been replaced by digital designs to make him look more modern and lifelike.
Despite the success of the campaign, preventing wildfires remains a challenge because more than 88 percent of blazes are started by campers, hikers and mountain bikers.
The leading causes are much the same as they were decades ago: unattended campfires, hot barbecue coals and discarded smoking material.
Firefighting efforts have been stressed since 2001, with more than 15 million acres of land burned in the United States mostly across drought-stricken parts of the West.
“When you look around the country at some of the devastating wildfires we have, most of them are started by people,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.
“We still have a lot of work to do. I don’t think Smokey has gotten too old. The message hasn’t gotten worn out.”