On August 9, 2016, Smokey Bear celebrated a birthday—his 72nd to be exact. Smokey is the emblematic image that fronts the longest-running public service announcement in U.S. history. A 2012 poll showed 96 percent of Americans recognized Smokey. One might ask how he has maintained such an iconic image for so many years. The answer may be simpler than you think. Smokey’s message of wildfire prevention is just as valid today as it was in 1944. Wildfires in this nation have always been, and will continue to be, a human-caused problem. Simply put, 9 of 10 wildfires nationally are caused by human activities, and in our state, that number rises to 96 percent.

Years ago, many people wrongly believed (and some still do to this day) that lightning is the leading cause of wildfires. This incorrect belief led to the development of Smokey’s original catch phrase: “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires,” which lasted until 1947. Since then the message has been changed to what most people will recognize today, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” In the 2000’s, the term “Forest Fire” was replaced with “Wildfires,” to represent the increased focus on all types of wildland fires, not just forests. So if not lightning strikes, what are the major causes of wildfires? The answer is just what you’d expect: unattended campfires, the burning of debris or brush, improperly extinguished smoking materials, dumped coals or ashes from fireplaces/grills, equipment that creates sparks, and arson.

In 1950, Smokey Bear became more than a simple print icon when a black bear cub was rescued after a wildfire had burnt through the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. The cub had climbed a tree to escape the fire, and although his life was spared, he was badly burned. With proper medical attention, the little cub survived his ordeal. Because carelessness had caused the wildfire, the bear cub was given the moniker, “Smokey,” in honor of the icon created just six years before. The actual bear became the living symbol of wildfire prevention. Smokey was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. where he lived the rest of his days as a reminder that wildfires have the potential to destroy much more than just trees and brush.

A recent phenomenon has strengthened the need for Smokey’s time-tested cautionary message, that being the trend of people moving from urban areas into areas historically prone to large-scale wildfires. The move is often prompted by a desire to get closer to nature to enjoy the beauty provided by forests and other wildlands. This area where wildfire-prone natural vegetation combines with human development is called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). Fires in the WUI can affect much more than just trees and vegetation; large fires can disrupt recreation and tourism, threaten drinking water sources with excess run-off, damage or destroy houses, and put firefighters’ and residents’ lives at risk. Importantly, Smokey’s message is not “no fire.” Instead, he promotes caution. Used responsibly, prescribed fire can promote healthy forests and provide value for many Americans who enjoy recreating and working outdoors. Prescribed burns can also reduce the intensity of future fires by preventing fuel from building up on the forest floor. Many generations of Americans have grown up with the Smokey Bear icon. Landowners, forest rangers and conservationists of all ilk should rest assured that for years to come, Smokey will be teaching new generations about the threat of wildfire and the importance of exercising caution.

Remember Smokey’s rules for wildfire prevention:
  • Only you can prevent wildfires
  • Always be careful with fire
  • Never play with matches or lighters
  • Always be in attendance of your campfire
  • Make sure your campfire is completely out before leaving it

Today, Smokey interacts with audiences, promotes wildfire prevention, and delivers fire safety tips through social media, including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. Check out Smokey’s website www.smokeybear.com for a pleasant trip down memory lane. Enjoy your outdoor activities this fall, but USE fire responsibly, and please remember to exercise caution. Smokey Bear appreciates it! And by the way, it is Smokey Bear, not Smokey the Bear!

As we head into one of our fire seasons, October and November, remember leaves start falling and with the drought we are experiencing, wildfires can and will happen! Don’t let one happen in your backyard! For more information contact: Frank Riley, Executive Director of the Chestatee/Chattahoochee RC&D council. Info.ccrcd@gmail.com