A story about how a Tribal Fire Crew Rescued the Real Smokey Bear

Taos Pueblo Snowball fire Crew
The Taos Pueblo Snowball Fire Crew. Photo/Bureau of Indian Affairs

This version of how Smokey Bear was originally discovered was posted on the U.S. Forest Service website by Sandy Marin, USFS Tribal Relations.

This year, we celebrated Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday as a national fire prevention icon. Many know Smokey’s message: “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” but fewer people may know that Smokey was a real American black bear rescued, in the spring of 1950, from a raging wildfire in New Mexico.

The Los Tablos and Capitan Gap fires, which burned over 17,000 acres, were stoked by 70-mile per hour winds that made the fires hard to fight. The Taos Pueblo Snowball crew formed when the war chief of the tribe called all available firefighters to quench the blaze in the Lincoln National Forest. Twenty-five volunteers boarded a school bus and began the long journey to fight the growing fires, fueled by gusting winds and high temperatures. It was only the second fire-fighting experience for the rookie crew. The men spent 28 long days fighting the fires.

The crew rescued the five-pound American black bear cub who later became known as “Smokey” out of the embers. Adolph Samora, a member of the Snowball crew, remembers putting out fire hotspots when some other firefighters called him over to what looked like a crumpled jacket lying on the ground.

“The little cub was covered,” he said. “[A crewmember] picked it up and placed it in my arms. The cub had blisters all over his hands and feet.” Crew members wrapped the three-month-old cub in their own jackets to protect his badly burned paws while they transported the little bear to safety.

A local family nursed Smokey back to health, and the bear was later moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he lived for the next 26 years. The story of Smokey’s rescue can be viewed at Smokey Bear LIVE from the Lincoln National Forest.

The Forest Service and the U.S. Advertising Council created Smokey Bear in 1944. Since then, Smokey Bear has become the longest running public service campaign in our nation’s history. His 75th anniversary celebration began with an appearance in the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day and finished with his appearance on Smokey Bear-themed ornaments for the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree. Other highlights included a new Smokey Bear exhibit at the National Zoo in D.C. and a birthday party at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery. But the crown jewel of a wonderful birthday year was the giant Smokey balloon floating down 5th Avenue in New York City during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

So how can you honor Smokey at the conclusion of his 75th birthday year celebration? Help in his lifelong mission of fire prevention, because only YOU can help prevent wildfires.

Adolph Samora Taos Pueblo
Adolph Samora, one of the original members of the Taos Pueblo Snowball crew responsible for the rescue of Smokey Bear. Photo/Smokey Bear LIVE

Here is a link to more information about finding Smokey.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Ted. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting 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.

7 thoughts on “A story about how a Tribal Fire Crew Rescued the Real Smokey Bear”

  1. This story caught my eye. Maybe in part because it concerns an American icon that I grew up and frequently worked with. And partly because I’m currently reading David Treuer’s new book “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee – Native America from 1890 to the present”. As a result, maybe I’m a little more curious about Native American issues than in the past.

    Perhaps we’ve all seen “The True Story of Smokey Bear”; that iconic comic book we’ve been handing out to kids at prevention events for decades. I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that I received my first copy as a grade school kid in the late 1960’s. It’s been in the background of my entire life since.

    Reading the above brief account of Smokey’s rescue sparked a question. I didn’t recall any mention of a Native American fire crew in the comic book story. And since my copies are filed away deep in my archive, I did what we do in this day and age, I Googled it, of course. And found a complete online PDF copy of it here: https://www.wvforestry.com/pdf/comicbook.pdf

    Sure enough I confirmed, no mention of the Taos crew. Maybe it was just a “cut due to page space” consideration; or maybe the publishers didn’t think their involvement was noteworthy. Or maybe a reflection of the deep seated institutional racism so prevalent throughout our American culture to this day. It wouldn’t have been the first time Native Americans were marginalized.

    The linked paper at the bottom of the above post tells the full story. It’s a pretty harrowing story, complete with a burnover! But with a happy ending. Gotta love Smokey!

  2. I am from the reservation of the Northern Ute Indian Tribe and we have some really good wildfire fighters out of Fort Duchesne Utah that’s awesome that it was native Americans that found have heard the story of Smokey did not know and wondered who and he was found

  3. I work for Smokey for 33 yrs. through Missouri Department of Conservation played Smokey at parades, county faires, many schools fire prevent programs fought forest fires in mo. and other states.. sat in fire lookout towers…retired now ..still have many memories..of days gone by ..thanks Smokey

  4. Howdy Bill

    The Smokey Bear article was written by Val Christianson, WUI Prevention Specialist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The article came out in a publication that the BIA published out of NIFC called “Smoke Signals”. I will email you a copy.



  5. What a great story of smokey. He is very much an icon here on our Mescalero reservation. All the children know smokey and is always in our parades. Thank you for the story. It was very interesting.

    1. I am a Mescalero Apache who has lived next to Taos Pueblo for thirty years now. Samoras are a legendary Taos Pueblo family and this is a very up lifting story to hear on your great website.
      From seasoned smokejumpers like Rene Romero who helps run Taos Pueblo’s Wildland Fire program to the many other fine Taos Pueblo Fire professionals.
      These guys literally have thousands of years of experience with wildfire, to say the least.
      James B.


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