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Smokey the Bear: An American Icon

If you have ever visited a National Forest you are probably familiar with the famous quote, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” by none other than Smokey the Bear. Smokey first appeared to us in 1944 as the symbol of fire prevention. He was a messenger to citizens nationwide to help prevent accidental forest fires. At the beginning of World War II wood products were greatly needed, so the Forest Service had to do something to protect our forest resources; and so appeared Smokey the Bear.  Smokey’s original message was, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” but was changed in 2011 from “forest fires” to “wildfires.”

Credit: CaZaTo Ma, Flickr Creative Commons.
Credit: CaZaTo Ma, Flickr Creative Commons.

Although Smokey the Bear was only a character, there was also a living version of Smokey: a black bear cub which was rescued from a wildfire in New Mexico in 1950. The bear cub had climbed a tree to get away from the fire and was partially burned. The cub was dubbed Smokey, and eventually made its way to the National Zoo in Washington DC.

Over the years Smokey became an important part of American culture, appearing on radio programs, in cartoons and in comic strips. Smokey is getting a makeover for his new PSA campaign, and will soon be giving hugs! The idea is that he will reward people who can actually tell him  ways to prevent wildfires, moving from an authoritative figure to more of a teacher.

Smokey the Bear is probably one of the most recognizable characters with an important message in our recent history. I know that growing up, whenever I saw that big brown bear on the side of the road, I immediately knew – no forest fires!

Some have even said that the Smokey the Bear campaign is one of the most powerful and enduring of all public service advertising. 

To learn more about Smokey, you can visit his website:

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About Deborah Zierten


Deborah joined the League's staff in 2013 as the Education & Interpretation Manager. She brings with her extensive experience teaching science, developing curriculum and connecting kids to the natural world.

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