Created in 1944, the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history, educating generations of Americans about their role in preventing wildfires. As one of the world's most recognizable characters, Smokey's image is protected by U.S. federal law and is administered by the USDA Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters and the Ad Council. Despite the campaign's success over the years, wildfire prevention remains one of the most critical issues affecting our country. Smokey's message is as relevant and urgent today as it was in 1944.
Smokey’s original catchphrase was "Smokey Says – Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires." In 1947, it became "Remember... Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires." In 2001, it was again updated to its current version of "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires" in response to a massive outbreak of wildfires in natural areas other than forests and to clarify that Smokey is promoting the prevention of unwanted and unplanned outdoor fires versus prescribed fires.
So how exactly did Smokey Bear become associated with wildfire prevention?
The answer begins with World War II. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. The following spring, Japanese submarines surfaced near the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and fired shells that exploded on an oil field, very close to the Los Padres National Forest. Americans were shocked that the war had come directly to the American mainland. Fear grew that more attacks would bring a disastrous loss of life and destruction of property. There was also a fear that incendiary shells exploding in the forests of the Pacific Coast would ignite numerous raging wildfires.
With experienced firefighters and other able-bodied men deployed in the war, communities had to deal with wildfires as best they could. Protection of forests became a matter of national importance, and a new idea was born. If people could be urged to be more careful, perhaps some of the fires could be prevented. To rally Americans to this cause, and convince them that it would help win the war, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program with the help of the War Advertising Council and the Association of State Foresters. Together, they created posters and slogans, including "Forest Fires Aid the Enemy," and "Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon."
In a stroke of luck for the cause, in 1942, forests and their animal inhabitants were celebrated in Walt Disney's wildly popular motion picture, "Bambi." Disney allowed the CFFP program to use the film’s characters on a 1944 poster. The "Bambi" poster was a success and proved the success of using an animal as a fire prevention symbol. However, Disney had only loaned the characters to the campaign for one year. The CFFP would need to find an animal symbol that would belong to them, and nothing seemed more fitting than the majestic, powerful (and also cute) bear.
On August 9, 1944, the creation of Smokey Bear was authorized by the Forest Service, and the first poster was delivered on October 10 by artist Albert Staehle. The poster depicted a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. Smokey Bear soon became popular, and his image began appearing on more posters and cards. By 1952, Smokey Bear began to attract commercial interest. An Act of Congress passed which removed Smokey from the public domain and placed him under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. The Act provided for the use of collected royalties and fees for continued wildfire prevention education.
Though he has already accomplished so much, Smokey’s work is far from over. Wildfire prevention remains crucial, and he still needs your help. His catchphrase reflects your responsibility: Only you can prevent wildfires. Remember that this phrase is so much more than just a slogan: it’s an important way to care for the world around you.