Around the country, people celebrate Smokey Bear’s birthday twice each year―in May and, again, in August.
It was in May 1950 when a burned bear cub was rescued from a raging forest fire in the Lincoln National Forest near Capitan, New Mexico. After recovering from his injuries, he joined the poster bear―Smokey Bear―in the fire prevention campaign that began in August, 1944.
The campaign was in response to an urgent need to preserve our forests and protect our resources, especially during World War II. Lumber was needed for building battleships, bombers, PT boats, and barracks. Lumber was necessary for making rifles, gliders, and other military uses. But forest fires had claimed thousands of acres of timber and robbed the military of man hours required to fight fires.
Because California’s forests were vulnerable to enemy fire, the Pacific Coast Advertising Club and Ad Council founder, Don Belding, with offices in Los Angeles, had initiated a fire prevention campaign in 1941. Along with radio and television advertising, the council also designed fire prevention posters. But the first posters were dark and war-like in appearance. The public reacted negatively.
Walt Disney was then asked to create an educational, but appealing, poster for fire prevention. Disney produced a Bambi poster with the notation, “Please Mister, Don’t Be Careless.” This poster was widely accepted and displayed in schoolrooms, public places, and on billboards. But since the Bambi image was only on loan from Disney, there were copyright issues. A new image was needed to represent fire prevention―a stronger forest animal.
On August 4, 1944, a meeting was held at the Department of Agriculture Building in Washington D.C., and a new fire prevention symbol was chosen―a bear. A well-known animal artist, Albert Staehle, created a poster that depicted a bear throwing water on a campfire. His sketches were approved, but the bear was said to lack emotional appeal. More discussion ensued.
Richard Hammatt, the director of the Wartime Forest Fire Prevention Campaign, suggested naming the bear “Smokey Bear.” Bill Bergoffen recommended dungarees and became known as “the man who put the pants on Smokey.” Now, the bear had personality. Staehle completed the poster―adding the dungarees, a ranger hat, and the tag line “Smokey Says―Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires.”
And that is why Smokey Bear celebrates his birthday in May and, again, in August.