Senate Minority Leader wants to eliminate the Smokey Bear balloon

Smokey Bear hot air balloon
Smokey Bear hot air balloon
Smokey Bear hot air balloon. Photo from Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon Facebook page

UPDATED January 7, 2012. Scroll to the bottom to see how Wildfire Today was called the “balloon lobby” by Senator McConnell’s Chief of Staff.


The Smokey Bear hot air balloon has been flying over crowds of people since its first public voyage in 1993 at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico. In 2012 the U.S. government spent $31,000 to help the aerial image of Smokey appear at venues across the country.

Most of the $200,000 annual budget for the 97-foot tall balloon comes from sponsorship and donations.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) wants to permanently ground it, saying on Thursday at the opening day of the new Congress:

…If we can’t stop spending taxpayer dollars on robo-squirrels, and dancing robot DJ’s or hot air balloon rides for Smokey the Bear, then there’s no hope at all.

Here is an excerpt from an article at

New Mexico State Forestry spokesperson Dan Ware says the balloon ultimately pays for itself.

“The balloon much like Smokey Bear himself is a symbol and it’s a teaching tool,” Ware said. “It’s an intangible. If one wildfire isn’t caused because someone remembers the message of Smokey Bear from when they were a child or when they were an adult, if one person contributes to not causing a human-caused wildfire then I think it’s worth it.”

McConnell isn’t the first GOP senator to be critical of the balloon. In his annual “Waste Book”, Sen. Tom Coburn (R – OK) listed the $31,000 in federal funding spent on the Smokey Bear Balloon in 2012 as a needless cost, saying the money would be better spent towards more DC-10 tankers to fight wildfires.

If we can assume that Smokey Bear actually does help to prevent forest fires, then an annual budget of $31,000 is an extremely good investment, and is about equal to three hours of flight time for a BAe-146 air tanker or 1.5 hours for a DC-10.

For more information about the Smokey Bear hot air balloon, check out the Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon web site or Facebook page.

Smokey Bear balloon at Sturgis motorcycle rally
The Smokey Bear balloon is launched at the Sturgis motorcycle rally. Pilot: Bill Chapel, Chase Truck: Dallas and Carol Griner. Helpers: Boxelder Job Corps students. Photo by Karen Wattenmaker.

UPDATE, January 7, 2012:

Our January 4 tweet about Senator Mitch McConnell’s desire to permanently ground the Smokey balloon got the attention of Josh Holmes, apparently the same Josh Holmes who is Senator McConnell’s Chief of Staff. Mr. Holmes appears to be calling Wildfire Today the “balloon lobby”.

Josh Holmes' tweet, "balloon lobby"

Mr. Holmes’ Twitter photo is similar to the photo on the Josh Holmes LinkedIn page where is is identified as “Chief of Staff at U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, Washington D.C.” as you can see below:

Josh Holmes LinkedIn

The Washington Post has more information about Mr. Holmes.

Typos, let us know HERE. And, please keep in mind our commenting ground rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

14 thoughts on “Senate Minority Leader wants to eliminate the Smokey Bear balloon”

  1. During budgets cuts, prevention and training is the first two things to go. No, you can not measure the cost or size of the fire that was prevented or the life that never had to be saved. What a short narrow understand of reality this person has.

  2. What is it with these Republican Senators and their attitudes towards wildland fire? First, we had then-Senator Conrad Burns verbally attack a Hotshot crew; the wanna-bee Montana Senator Dennis Rehberg sued the Billings FD over a wildfire (Both guys lost their next elections = makes me PROUD to be a Montanan!!). Now Coburn and McConnell are so small-minded that they chase the pennies in the air (the Smokey balloon) while the $1,000,000 bills blow away in oil company subsidies, defense contracts for hardware the Military doesn’t want, and other serious “pork” that could make real differences if they were cut. Looks like the 113th Congress is out to challenge the 112th as the least productive and most inept in our long history; let’s hope that we don’t have to have a succession of serious fire seasons to bring them back closer to the real world about wildland fire and the benefits of Fire Prevention.

  3. I think I hear the banjo players in Red Bird: hope they remember the fire prevention message when Smokey is gone, and that Kentuck doesn’t go up in smoke – again!

  4. I wonder how many $$ we US taxpayers pay for Secret Service personnel and expenses for the Senate Minority Leader yearly? Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul – what a pair to draw to! Sure glad I don’t have wildfire responsibilities on the Dan’l Boone NF: Can you imagine trying to have a rationale discussion with either of those two about fire prevention and wildland fire management? Ah, Democracy!

  5. Some 22 Fire Departments responded to the cheat grass and scrub pine fire on the Rehberg Ranch Estates. The only paid departments were the Billings Fire Department, Billings Logan International Airport, Lockwood (part paid, part volunteer, Montana DNRC and the BLM. All other respponding departments were volunteers.

    Rehberg won 46 of 56 counties and still lost by 17,000 votes.

    He also got his ass kicked in Republican stronghold Gallatin County and Yellowstone County (his home County).

  6. Smokey is one of the longest running, most well known, effective and popular “Public Figures” in the United States that is politicaly neurtral, projecting a needed fire safety message. Shame on these short-sighted congressmen. And to think most of the balloon cost is funded from other sources.

  7. This is a good insight on how our elected officials think, or don’t think. Picking on a poor old “bear”. Maybe these guys also hate teddy bears? There is little dispute that waste in our goverment runs; well, like a wind-driven wildfire. There goes Air Force One back to Hawaii for a few days. Check six Smokey there after you.

  8. What a couple of morons!!! These 2 clowns pee away 31000$ of tax peayer money a month!!! how dow clowns like thsi keep getting re-elected?? come on people send them packing! They dont want to be educated on issues, so let’s make them get real jobs!

  9. If the senate cut the social security and medicare budgets, the budgets like this won’t be any problem.

    1. Last time I looked, Social Security was NOT paid for with Appropriated Funds, but rather from worker contributions ( I’ve been paying in since I was 16). As for Medicare, there are obviously improvements that can be made, but the same can be said for the Defense Department, the Farm Bill and numerous tax loopholes.

      If the solution was easy, it would have been done, even by these Dodos we call our Congresspersons.

  10. Another example of the disconnect we are all suffering from……Most high and mid-level leaders (dare I include Politian’s;-) have lost touch with what’s really going on out there and are playing games like it’s elementary school. These folks are living in a vacuum and it makes me sick!!
    End rant, push on……push on…….

  11. How much do we spend on any Dem and Rep leaders yearly?

    How much in the SS Admin do we spend on very frivlous claims in order NOT to look for work?

    This could go on and on.

    The Comanche helicopter program was eliminated in 2004 due to over runs and the various layers of procurement.

    Now on to Smokey Bear…..

    The FIREWISE program could use to stand the entire rest of the Smokey Bear program funding. WHY? Because after 60 years of PSA’s thought even I grew up with….FIREWISE does a BETTER hands on and delivery of real pre disaster mitigation.

    Smokey has PSA’s , trinkets, bookmarks, and other prevention oriented material. What we need is a REAL functioning attitude towards pre mitigation work and funding. FIREWISE seems to accomplish that.

    Now with the ‘fiscal cliff” put off til approxiamately March. With the impending cuts that may or are coming……….

    $31,000 dollars for a ballon will be a drop in the bucket when the REAL cuts hit.

    I have seen some of the cuts YEEEARS ago which were reallocations of other programs to fund others……looks like it is time for another round of reallocating resources.

    Retirees and former types of the LMA’s that are and were “students of government” ought to know and KNEW where this was going…..

    Blaming Republicans all the time will not solve any problems. If there are programs that do not show a return for the dollar……welll maybe it is time.

    What should be eliminated is any funding such as the fols getting RFP’s and whatnot for the Six… count em …… six airtanker studies….how much money was allocated by both Democratic and Republicans (Congress House, and Senate) for those little ventures?

    Nothing was done either to get new airtankers in the last 20 years…and again blame Congress. But when funding is around….gues who is bellying up to the funding trough??

    If $31,000 gets cut from the funding of Smokey….it will be a mere pittance for what about to happen ….let say drawdown of the military..that will put plenty o civilians and military types out of work……faaaaaar exceeding $31,000 USD

    So if some of Smokey funding goes down the tubes…

    Well… like Bill addressed……3 hours of BAe 146 time sure beats Chinese made lead pencils that the Smokey programs hand out that could put more US folks to work…..

    Maybe “enuf” said on my part, huh?

  12. Most clowns know all about balloons – seems fitting for McConnell. With the notorious arson problem in Kentucky woodlands every year, you’d think he’d support low-cost fire prevention efforts. According to the Kentucky Forestry site, from 2002-2012 they had 8,838 arson fires and 3,777 debris burning wildfires. Guess McConnell and his staff couldn’t smell the smoke from inside the Beltway?

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