Smokey Bear is turning 75, and Tuolumne County is celebrating. The U.S. Forest Service Stanislaus National Forest and CAL FIRE are throwing a Tuolumne County birthday party for Smokey on Friday, August 9. The event is free.
The day begins at 10 a.m. at the Tuolumne County Library, 480 Greenley Road in Sonora, with children making birthday cards for Smokey and presentation of “The True Story of Smokey Bear.” At 11 a.m., festivities will move next door to the Heaven for Kids playground for a birthday party, games, and safety booths. Activities will end at 2 p.m.
History of Smokey Bear
According to the U.S. Forest Service, Smokey was born on August 9, 1944, when the Forest Service and the Ad Council decided a fictional bear would be the symbol of their effort to promote forest fire prevention. The first Smokey Bear poster showed Smokey pouring a bucket of water on a campfire and saying “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.” Smokey Bear became popular as his image appeared on forest fire prevention materials. In 1947, his slogan became the well-known “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires!”
In the spring of 1950, a major wildfire swept through the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. As fire crews battled to contain the fire, they received a report of a bear cub seen wandering near the fire line. They hoped the mother would return for him. Soon, about 30 of the firefighters were caught in the path of the fire. They survived by lying face down on a rockslide for over an hour as the fire burned past them.
Nearby, the little cub did not do as well. He took refuge in a tree that became completely charred, escaping with his life but also badly burned paws and hind legs. The firefighters removed the cub from the tree, and a rancher agreed to take the cub to his home. The firefighters who rescued him, called the cub Smokey. A New Mexico Department of Game and Fish ranger heard about the cub, and he drove to the rancher’s home to get the cub on a plane to Santa Fe where his burns were treated and bandaged.
News about Smokey spread across the nation. Many people wrote and called asking about his recovery. The state game warden wrote to the chief of the Forest Service, offering the cub to the agency as long as Smokey would be dedicated to a conservation and wildfire prevention publicity program. The cub was soon on his way to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.
Smokey received so many gifts of honey and letters that he had to have his own zip code. Smokey remained at the National Zoo until his death in 1976, when he was returned home to be buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico.
To this day, Smokey Bear continues to be a wildfire prevention legend.