Smokey Bear

The iconic Smokey Bear celebrates his 75th birthday this year. He is being honored by the Missouri Department of Conservation at the Ozark Empire Fair.

When it comes to advertising symbols that have captured the public’s affection, Smokey Bear is a bear beyond compare.

America’s most lovable fire-fighter – Smokey Bear – is celebrating his 75th birthday this year and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) wants to recognize this festive occasion with a little dancing. To honor Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday, MDC and the Missouri State University Brass and Sass Band are inviting the public to do the Hokey Pokey with Smokey on four nights at this year’s Ozark Empire Fair. The dancing will occur, weather permitting, in front of the MDC building on the west side of the fairgrounds on Thursday, July 25; Friday, July 26; Wednesday, July 31 and Friday, August 2. The dancing will take place at approximately 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on those select evenings and will be part of the musical entertainment that MSU’s Brass and Sass Band provide annually at the Fair.

Smokey Bear is a product of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council; but every state’s forestry agency – including Missouri’s – has adopted this congenial animal to help spread awareness about fire safety. Smokey’s story originates with a concern about the large number of wildfires in the U.S. each year and a worry about the lack of people available to fight because of the country’s commitment to winning World War II.

By the time World War II started in 1941, there was clear evidence the U.S. had a fire problem – the country averaged more than 160,000 wildfires per year during the 1930s. Concern on how to fight these fires heightened when the U.S. entered World War II and the country’s fire-fighting force was drained by a call to military duty. There was also concern Axis agents might use covert action involving wildfire on the U.S. home front to cause further stress to an already-strained war effort.

To alleviate this worry, the U.S. Forest Service, with the help of the Wartime Advertising Council and the Association of State Foresters (now known as the National Association of State Foresters) organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) Program in 1942. One of the early efforts of the CFFP was a short-term fire-prevention campaign using Bambi and several other animal characters from the successful Disney movie in early 1944. The Bambi poster resonated with the public and showed that using an animal as a fire prevention symbol could be successful.

However, the Bambi characters could not be used in subsequent campaigns because they were on loan from Disney, so the CFFP began a quest to find a new animal to promote fire prevention. A bear was chosen to be a representative of wildfire awareness – a bear named after “Smokey” Joe Martin, a New York City fireman who had gained fame for a daring fire rescue in previous decades. On August 9, 1944, the creation of Smokey Bear was authorized by the U.S. Forest Service and thus began the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history.

The famed phrase known by generations of Smokey fans – “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires” – was first used in 1947, adding thrust to a campaign that was growing in popularity. Perhaps the most famous chapter in the Smokey Bear story occurred in the spring of 1950 when a five-pound, three-month-old black bear cub was found alive among the ashes of the Capitan Gap Fire, a wildfire that charred a portion of eastern New Mexico’s Lincoln National Forest. Photos and stories of the small furry wildfire survivor made national news and it was decided the bear cub would reside at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. as a living symbol of Smokey Bear. The bear remained a popular attraction at the zoo until this living representation of Smokey Bear died in 1976 and was buried at Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, N.M.

Throughout his 75-year history, Smokey Bear has been used in books, posters, postage stamps, songs, coloring books and toys. Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, and Roy Rogers are among the celebrities who have appeared with Smokey to help spread his message about fire awareness. In 2001, Smokey’s slogan was changed to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” The change in wording recognized fire danger in grasslands, farming country and populated areas as well as forests.

The best part of Smokey Bear’s 75-year story is that his message seems to have raised the country’s fire-awareness conscious. While it’s true there’s still room for more awareness – more than 70,000 wildfires char approximately seven million acres in the U.S. each year – these numbers represent a considerable drop from the 160,000-plus fires the U.S. experienced annually in the 1930s.

Thank you, Smokey.

Moving back to this year’s Ozark Empire Fair in Springfield, the Fair runs from July 25 through Aug. 3. The MDC building will be open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. each day of the fair. Inside the building will be an assortment of Smokey Bear give-away items and other information on Missouri’s fish, forest and wildlife resources.

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