Tuesday, July 8, 2008

NJ: Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear, the guardian of our forests, has been a part of the American scene for so many years it is hard for us to remember when he first appeared. Dressed in a ranger's hat, belted blue jeans, and carrying a shovel, he has been the recognized forest fire prevention symbol for over 50 years. Today, Smokey Bear is one of the most famous advertising symbols in the world and is protected by Federal Law. He has his own private zip code, his own legal council, and his own private committee to insure that his name is used properly. Smokey Bear is much more than a make-believe paper image; he exists as an actual symbol of forest fire prevention.

To understand how Smokey Bear became associated with forest fire prevention, we must go back to World War II. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. The following spring in 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced near the coast of Southern California and fired a salvo of shells that exploded on an oil field near Santa Barbara, very close to the Los Padres National Forest. Americans throughout the country were shocked by the news that the war had now been brought directly to the American mainland. There was concern that further attacks could bring a disastrous loss of life and destruction of property. There was also a fear that enemy incendiary shells exploding in the timber stands of the Pacific Coast could easily set off numerous raging forest fires. With experienced firefighters and other able-bodied men engaged in the armed forces, the home communities had to deal with the forest fires as best they could. Protection of these forests became a matter of national importance, and a new idea was born. If people could be urged to be more careful, perhaps some of the fires could be prevented.
With this is mind, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign with the help of the Wartime Advertising Council.

Posters and slogans were created by the Advertising Council, including "Forest Fires Aid the Enemy," and "Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon." By using catchy phrases, colorful posters and other fire prevention messages, the Advertising Council suggested that people could prevent accidental fires and help win the war.

Walt Disney's motion picture, "Bambi" was produced in 1944 and Disney let the forest fire prevention campaign use his creation on a poster. The "Bambi" poster was a success and proved that using an animal as a fire prevention symbol would work. A fawn could not be used in subsequent campaigns because "Bambi" was on loan from Walt Disney studios for only one year; the Forest Service would need to find an animal that would belong to the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign. It was finally decided that the Nation's number one firefighter should be a bear.

On August 9, 1944, the first poster of Smokey Bear was prepared. The poster depicted a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. Smokey Bear soon became popular, and his image began appearing on other posters and cards.

In 1952, Smokey Bear had enough public recognition to attract commercial interest. An Act of Congress passed to take Smokey out of the public domain and place him under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. The Act provided for the use of collected fees and royalties for forest fire prevention. One of the first licensed items was a Smokey Bear stuffed toy. Hundreds of items have been licensed over the years.

We still have a lot of work to do. There are children and adults who need to hear and learn about Smokey Bear and his forest fire prevention message and there are still people who need to be continually reminded of the need to prevent forest fires.

Photo: near Califon, NJ

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