Smokey Bear Celebrates 70 Years Of Preventing Wildfires

Tim Watt  |  August 13, 2014

Wildfires in the U.S. have declined dramatically in the past few decades, and it may be partly thanks to the work of one spokesman - or spokesbear. This August, Smokey Bear celebrated his 70th birthday. A prime example of healthy senior living, Smokey continues his campaign of protecting the nation's forests by reminding people of their responsibility for stopping fires, and he's showing no signs of slowing down.

Birth of an icon 
For his entire career, Smokey Bear has been dedicated to warning Americans of the dangers of forest fires. However, the mascot was originally tasked not with stopping people from accidentally starting fires but with getting them to look out for those started intentionally, CBS News reported. In 1944, when Smokey was created, the Japanese army was releasing balloon-mounted fire bombs into the air in the hopes that they would cause fire in the U.S.

Many firefighters were overseas at the time, and soldiers on duty couldn't be reassigned to watch for the balloons. To encourage citizens to keep a more watchful eye on the sky, the Wartime Ad Council partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters to create an ad campaign, Reuters reported. The organizations came up with Smokey Bear and his famous motto, "Only you can prevent forest fires."

Smokey's slogan has since been tweaked slightly to "Only you can prevent wildfires," but most things about him have stayed the same in his 70 years of guarding the forests. Wearing a ranger's hat and blue jeans, Smokey's image has remained almost as static as his message. That consistency seems to have paid off, according to the Ad Council. A 2012 study from the agency found that 96 percent of U.S. adults recognize Smokey Bear and 70 percent remember his tagline without help.

Speaking for Smokey 
However, Smokey hasn't remained entirely the same throughout his tenure. A number of actors have portrayed Smokey on the radio and lent their voice to him in animated ads. His voice is currently provided by someone with a few things in common with the famous bear. Sam Elliott voices Smokey in the latest ads, and, according to USA Today, he also shares a birthday with the mascot. Both turned 70 on Aug. 9. Elliott is best known for his portrayals of cowboys and other gruff outdoorsmen, lending a bit of authenticity to his portrayal of the woodland warden. The actor has an even deeper connection to the mascot and his message, too. According to the news source, Elliott's home in Malibu, California, was destroyed by a wildfire in 1978.

"It was a pretty horrific thing. When that fire came in on us, all we could do was get out ... it looked like (someone) dropped a bomb on us. Just scorched earth," Elliott told the source.

A successful campaign 
In the 70 years of Smokey's campaign, wildfires have been reduced dramatically. Since the start of its Smokey Bear program, the Ad Council said that the amount of damage done by wildfires has dropped from 22 million acres annually in 1944 to 6.7 million acres per year in 2012.

Although efforts to prevent and contain these fires have been largely successful, sudden blazes still pose a danger. Thomas Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, told Reuters that modern wildfires tend to actually be much larger when they're started, due to hotter, drier weather. That makes it even more important for fires to be prevented or stopped early. Fortunately, that's often what happens. Tidwell told the news source that there were about 140,000 wildfires per year in the 1940s, compared to around 60,000 in recent years.