Today, August 9, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the Smokey Bear public service campaign, the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history, educating generations of Americans about their role in preventing wildfires.
The campaign started during World War II. After a Japanese submarine surfaced near the coast of Santa Barbara firing shells that exploded on an oil field near the Los Padres National Forest, and Japanese balloons dropped incendiary devices that started a few fires and killed six citizens in Oregon, the government figured that with fires being ignited by Japan, they needed to reduce the number of preventable human-caused fires.
For the first six years Smokey Bear was just an icon, an image. The first real representative of the Bear came in 1950 when a bear cub was found clinging to a burned tree in a forest fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Firefighters rescued the cub, which had badly burned paws and hind legs, and he was flown to Santa Fe for treatment. The story became national news and the bear was given a home in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.
Smokey received numerous gifts of honey and so many letters he had to have his own zip code. He remained at the zoo until his death in 1976, when he was returned to his home to be buried at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico, where he continues to be a wildfire prevention legend.
In 1952, Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote the popular anthem that would launch a continuous debate about Smokey’s name. To maintain the rhythm of the song, they added “the” between “Smokey” and “Bear.” Due to the song’s popularity, Smokey Bear has been called “Smokey the Bear” by many adoring fans, but, in actuality, his name never changed. He’s still Smokey Bear.