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From Orphaned Cub to Internationally Known Forest Service Icon, Smokey Bear Turns 70 Years Old Next Year!

Arriving in Washington, DC, the little hotfoot victim was greeted by a pouring rain, Lyle F. Watts, Chief of the Forest Service (center) and Stanlee Ann Miller of Albuquerque. N.M., who represented the school children of her state. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

Arriving in Washington, DC, the little hotfoot victim was greeted by a pouring rain, Lyle F. Watts, Chief of the Forest Service (center) and Stanlee Ann Miller of Albuquerque. N.M., who represented the school children of her state. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

Sometimes, a story speaks for itself. Although Smokey Bear was created on August 9, 1944, when the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council agreed that a fictional bear named Smokey would be the symbol for their efforts to promote forest fire prevention – what later happened is simply amazing.

Imagine this. The year is 1950, and a fire has been spotted in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. The responding fire crew quickly realized that the blaze was more than they could handle. Word quickly spread that they needed help. Area forest rangers, Army soldiers, Native American crews and assorted state and local volunteers gathered together in an attempt to contain the inferno that was fueled by increasingly gusty winds.

During this time, someone reported seeing a lonely bear cub wandering near the fireline. The firefighters naturally left him alone because they assumed his mother was nearby and would rescue him.

A short time later, the firefighters found themselves trapped by flames. They barely escaped death by laying face-down on a rockslide for more than an hour. The fire raged past them and miraculously, except for a few scorches, all were safe and accounted for.

The little cub had not been quite so lucky. He had taken refuge in a tree that was eventually completely charred. Although the climb had saved his life, the little cub was badly burned.

The firefighters removed the cub from the burned tree, but they did not know what to do with him. A rancher, who had been helping on the effort, agreed to take him home. A New Mexico Department of Game and Fish ranger heard about the injured cub from talk at the firecamp. He made arrangements for a small plane to fly the little guy to Santa Fe for critically needed veterinary care.

News about the little bear spread, well, like wildfire. Soon media outlets reported on it nationwide. Public interest for the cub was incredible, prompting the State Game Warden to write an official letter to the Chief of the Forest Service, presenting him to the agency with the understanding that he would be dedicated to a program of fire prevention and conservation. The go-ahead was given to send the bear to Washington, DC, where he found a home at the National Zoo, becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.

And yes, his real name is Smokey Bear – not Smokey the Bear. In 1952, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote an anthem that would cause a debate among Smokey enthusiasts to this day. In order to keep rhythm in the song, they added ‘the’ between ‘Smokey’ and ‘Bear’. But his name never really did change.

So, think about this story now and again as you build campfires when out in the woods, or when you strive to keep your homes safe during this challenging fire season. And remember – ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT WILDFIRES.

Judy Bell and Smokey Bear. Taken shortly after Smokey had been rescued from the Forest Fire in May 1950. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

Judy Bell and Smokey Bear. Taken shortly after Smokey had been rescued from the Forest Fire in May 1950. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

17 Responses to “From Orphaned Cub to Internationally Known Forest Service Icon, Smokey Bear Turns 70 Years Old Next Year!”

  1. Steve Harrington says:

    Love this story. I didn’t know the whole story.

    Thanks for the services that you provide our nation. I don’t care what our politicians say about government workers.
    Sincerely,
    Steve Harrington

  2. Leslie Glass says:

    Thank you for sharing the heart warming history of our Nation’s beloved Smokey Bear. I grew up in this era, but I never knew the rest of the story.

  3. Catherine Gibbons says:

    Thanks for the uplifting story of compassion. Sadly, in
    some cities and towns in Massachusetts our government employees shoot and kill bears and other wildlife instead of making an effort and being humane and compassionate.

  4. Forrest Dilmore says:

    Is the bear at the National Zoo the original bear that was rescued in 1950?

  5. FS Office of Communication says:

    The bear cub rescued from the fire in 1950 did, indeed, live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., from 1950 until his death in 1976.

  6. Eileen says:

    The more I learn about the Forest Service. the more I love it! Great job.

  7. Jaque says:

    Wonderful story! A piece of American History!

  8. Frank Sera says:

    Great story and beautifully written. This my favorite blog and my favorite bear!

  9. Frank Sera says:

    Do school kids still know about Smokey these days? He was big deal when I was young. Just wondering if he is still spreading the word about forest fires to the next generation. Hope so

  10. Angela says:

    Such a motivational and inspiring true story concerning our nations forest, what we can do to help prevent forest fires and the animals that can suffer it we do not do our fair share.

  11. Joe says:

    Like others, I never heard about this story before. THANKS FOR SHARING! I bet the Forest Service has many more cool stories to tell. I look forward to reading all of them. Keep up the good work, folks.

  12. Pam says:

    Never knew of this story but did recall learning about “Smokey the Bear” and I’ve seen some posters of him near National Forest Parks. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Myron Messinger says:

    Smokey shook hands with Presidents,movie stars and many important people over the last 70 years,a great symbol of the USA.For 30 years as a forest fire warden I told the story of Smokey to a lot of people.

  14. Maria says:

    “A rancher, who had been helping on the effort, agreed to take him home. – See more at: http://blogs.usda.gov/2013/06/10/from-orphaned-cub-to-internationally-known-forest-service-icon-smokey-bear-turns-70-years-old-next-year/#sthash.WyfxY7LV.dpuf” -
    Does anyone know who this rancher’s name was? Interested in knowing. Thanks.

  15. Christiane says:

    I saw Smokey at the National Zoo many times in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a very little girl living in Washington…but even as I approach my 50s, I still remember how exciting it was to see him and know the story “behind the bear”. Kudos for keeping this American icon alive and well (and loved) by issuing the latest PSAs!

  16. Debbie says:

    I was raised with Smokey the Bear and learned the story by Disney’s story of the horrible fire. Smokey is a fun thing for kids and a wonderful memory for adults. Thanks for taking care of an American icon. Love you Smokey.

  17. Florence Stockton says:

    Hello,
    I have always loved this Smokey Bear story My sister, Florene, lived in New Mexico in the 60′s. I was born in New Mexico in 1937. Eddy Arnold sang Smokey Bear in the 60′s!
    Keep up the good work!
    Regards, Florence

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