Smokey at 75: America's iconic fire-preventing bear evolves his message

Smokey the Bear
Smokey the Bear says fire danger is low on July 19, 2019, along Highway 1 east of Ely in the Superior National Forest. Smokey celebrates his 75th birthday today, and is the face of the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Smokey Bear was born during World War II, when the nation was on high alert for Japanese bombs that could ignite forest fires along the Pacific Coast — and when most of the people who would have been called upon to fight fires were instead off fighting the war.

And in the 75 years since — Aug. 9 is Smokey Bear’s official birthday — he’s become a symbol of American conservation. But forest managers and ecologists worry that his message of wildfire prevention is as vintage as his dungarees.

The government first turned to Bambi as its animated fire prevention mascot in 1943, at a time when several huge wildfires in the western U.S. had caused a public outcry.

But when its agreement with Disney expired after a year, the War Advertising Council created a gentle but stern bear, clad in a ranger hat and blue jeans, to tell the country that saving the forest was up to us.

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Smokey became the public face of the campaign against wildfire. In 1950, a bear cub was rescued from a forest fire in New Mexico, moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and became the living symbol of Smokey Bear. His popularity soared. Kids sent him so many letters the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own ZIP code.

And all these decades later, he's still an icon. A few years ago, Superior National Forest officials stopped allowing Smokey to walk in Ely’s Fourth of July parade after he backed up the parade route for five blocks.

“There were people running out into the street to give Smokey a hug, to give him a high five, to take their photos with him,” said Nicole Selmer, a fire prevention specialist for the Superior National Forest who often accompanies Smokey at public events.

“I was actually in awe,” she said. “I know people loved Smokey. I didn't know how much he means to people.”

But now Selmer says when she talks to people in the community, she finds that Smokey's message may have been a little too effective.

"They come with the preconceived idea that all fire is bad, and you think about what a great job Smokey Bear has done with his message. That's really pretty much been what we have communicated," she said.

Shifting ideas about forests and fire

For decades, U.S. Forest Service policy was to put out every single wildfire, as quickly as possible. It was known as the “10 a.m. policy.”

"The 10 a.m. policy was to put all fires out by 10 a.m. the next morning. That's how fierce we were," said Gus Smith, a fire ecologist and Kawishiwi District ranger with the Superior National Forest in Ely.

That policy was put in place after the Great Fire of 1910, an inferno that consumed 3 million acres of forestland in the Rocky Mountains, and burned a palpable fear of wildfire into the American psyche.

A forest fire official checks a tree
Superior National Forest fire management officer Timo Rova checks the bark on a pine tree that was charred during a June prescribed fire on the Superior National Forest near Ely. Rova says some people don’t like blackened trees left behind by prescribed fire, but he says it creates a healthier, more fire resistant forest.
Dan Kraker | MPR news

But the fire prevention efforts that came out of that fear had unintended consequences. Without regular, smaller wildfires to naturally thin out forests, they became choked with trees, and at risk of erupting into the larger, catastrophic fires that have devastated western forests over the last twenty years.

"We've had so many years without fire from our excellent suppression that the forests have gone out of whack,” said Smith.

Some people call it the Smokey Bear Effect.

"It made us think that all fires were bad, because in the beginning, we did,” Smith said. “And so that made it slower for us, the public, culturally, to pick up with what the scientists and ecologists were starting to figure out."

What they were starting to figure out was that not all fires are bad. By the 1960s and 70s, ecologists began to realize that the forests had evolved thanks to wildfire, and needed wildfires to remain healthy.

In response, the Forest Service's approach to fire has shifted over the past several decades. Now, managers use a variety of tools, from tree thinning and logging to regular, prescribed fires to keep forests healthy.

Firefighters used to protect forests from fire, Smith said. Now, the Forest Service also protects them with fire.

Prescribing fire for forest health

Earlier this summer, on a cool, humid day, a crew of firefighters did the opposite of what their job typically entails: They intentionally set on fire a section of forest 25 miles outside Ely in northern Minnesota.

It's called a prescribed burn.

Firefighters used drip torches — which look like retrofitted fire extinguishers, with a handle and nozzle, filled with a mix of gasoline and diesel — to ignite brush on the forest floor.

The Pitcha Pine prescribed fire burned about 100 acres
The Pitcha Pine prescribed fire burned about 100 acres about 25 miles southeast of Ely, Along Highway 1, on July 19, 2019.
Photo courtesy of Shaun Vass

The Pitcha Pines burn, along Minnesota Hwy. 1 east of town, was designed to prevent larger fires in the future, and to restore fire to the ecosystem.

"Many of our plant communities in northern Minnesota are dependent on fire,” explained the project’s burn boss, Jeb Bokke. Take jack pine, an important, long-lived tree species in the boreal forests of northern Minnesota. “Their cones need the heat to open their seeds,” Bokke said. “They need fire to regenerate.”

The prescribed burn also cleared out the understory of balsam fir, an extremely fire-prone species that can carry fire into the crowns of big pines. And by clearing out underbrush, the fire gives giant red pines a place to drop their seeds, and to grow the next generation of forest.

The 100-acre burn was just one of several prescribed fires conducted in the Superior National Forest this summer that together burned several thousand acres.

The goal is to create a “mosaic” of burned areas throughout the forest — like a checkerboard, or patchwork quilt of burned and not-burned vegetation. So if a giant wildfire were to roar through the forest, it would lose its intensity when it hits a spot that’s been recently burned, because that burned patch has less fuel for the fire to continue picking up steam. That break allows firefighters a safe place to combat the blaze.

A road sign in northern Minnesota
A road sign near Ely, Minn. warns of a prescribed burn in the Pitcha Pines. The 100-acre burn was just one of several prescribed fires conducted in the Superior National Forest in the summer of 2019 that together burned several thousand acres.
Dan Kraker | MPR news

In addition to prescribed burns, fire managers also sometimes now will monitor wildfires sparked by lightning, rather than suppressing them right away. If conditions are right, they will allow them to burn.

That approach is still a controversial one, because on rare occasions, those wildfires, and sometimes even prescribed burns, can escape control and possibly put people at risk.

That's what happened with the Pagami Creek Fire that burned nearly 100,000 acres in the Boundary Waters in 2011.

"We have some public that, as we’ve been burning, they’re getting tired of it,” acknowledged Timo Rova, who’s managed several prescribed burns for the Superior National Forest.

“They see devastation, and I see regeneration,” he said. “A future forest, a healthy forest, a resilient one, and one that’s also much more fire resistant."

Jeb Bokke writes notes as a prescribed fire burns behind him
Fire Boss Jeb Bokke surveys the 100-acre Pitcha Pine prescribed fire.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Is it time for Smokey to retire?

In 2001, the U.S. Forest Service tweaked Smokey Bear's famous motto — “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” — to “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” It was a subtle move designed to reflect the agency’s evolving fire management strategy.

But some people don't think that goes far enough.

“Let’s retire him, with dignity,” argues Steven Pyne, himself a retired fire historian from Arizona State University. He’s written several books on wildfire.

"Give him a golden shovel, a hearty handshake, the thanks of a grateful nation, then let him trundle off to his cabin in the woods," he said.

After 75 years, Smokey has too much baggage, Pyne argues. His message is too muddled. He suggests turning the campaign over to Smokey's two cubs, with an updated message.

"Between them, they can show the need to fight fire and light fire — the two things we need to do now," he said.

The Forest Service, though, has no plans to retire Smokey. It says his message of personal responsibility is still relevant, especially with kids.

“People really relate to Smokey,” said Nicole Selmer with the Superior National Forest. “He’s the friendly face they associate with fire safety.”

And that’s a message that still bears repeating. While the amount of forest burned by wildfire has been drastically reduced since the 1940s, the cause of most of those fires remains the same.

When Smokey was born, people were responsible for almost nine out of every 10 wildfires. Seventy-five years later, they still are.