Smokey the Bear has a new gig going on. The fire-dousing friend of the forests, who began his public service campaign in 1944, is renowned for his message,

“Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” He’s still saying that today, but with a slight twist…although it is agreed that wild fires are very destructive, prescribed fires – or controlled burns – are now accepted as a necessary part of good forest ecology. Prescribed fires refer to the controlled application of fire to wildlands to help restore them to a natural state of health. When carefully planned and executed, prescribed fire is a very effective tool in preventing the outbreak and spread of wild fires.

“For years, Smokey was adamantly against any kind of fire – natural or human,” said Ben Zamora, associate professor in natural resource sciences. “By trying to suppress all types of fire, we inadvertently created some of our own problems such as a massive buildup of dry fuel on forest floors and the potential for catastrophic fires like the one in Yellowstone Park a few years ago. In a way, Smokey ended up being “anti-nature”.

Smokey’s story began in 1942, during WWII, when a Japanese submarine fired shells at the California coast hitting an oil field. Fearing further attacks could ignite west coast forests, the U.S. Forest Service joined with the War Advertising Council to create posters and ads suggesting that citizens could help win the war by preventing accidental fires. In 1944, Disney studios gave the ad campaign permission to use the Bambi cartoon in its posters. The promotion turned out to be a great success, but because the Forest Service was only allowed a one-year contract for Bambi, a new animal had to be found. It was decided that a bear would be the appropriate symbol for the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign – and the first Smokey Bear poster was born.

But Smokey took on an actual life of his own in 1950 when a major forest fire, driven by strong winds, devoured areas of the Capitan Mountains in New Mexico. Fire fighters noticed a lone bear cub wandering in the fire line, but assumed his mother was nearby and would find him soon. After the firestorm blew by, they found the little cub clinging to the smoking snag of a charred tree, his legs and paws badly burned. The firefighters rescued the cub and eventually flew him to Santa Fe for veterinary care. News spread quickly across the country and many people wrote letters asking about the little bear’s progress. In time, the New Mexico State Game Warden wrote an official letter to the U.S. Chief of the Forest Service offering the cub to the agency on the condition that the bear be dedicated to a publicity program of fire prevention and conservation. The recovering bear was later sent to his new home at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, to become the American icon known as Smokey the Bear. (www.smokeybear.com)

Today, there is a strong emphasis to reintroduce fire into forest and shrub lands as a natural resource. “Fire has always been a factor in expression of these ecosystems over time,” said Zamora. “A grassland is a grassland because of fire. In California, chapparal is a fire-adapted vegetation – it grows best with regular occurrence of fire. The same thing happens in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “Our forests are healthier with regular outbreaks of fire.”

In this vein, there has been a very slow transition in Smokey’s image from the major fire suppression era of the 1950s-60s into the current fire management era we see today. “The change really took off in the early 1980s,” said Zamora. “Fire became incorporated into the professional’s bag of tricks around that time,” he said, “yet Smokey was still pushing his original “no fire” agenda.” Apparently some of Smokey’s public relations people wanted to hold onto his older image, fearing it could be catastrophic to change Smokey overnight. “And they’re probably right,” laughed Zamora, “it could be troubling to see Smokey suddenly stop promoting fire suppression – and start lobbing Molotov cocktails into a brush pile.” So, today’s visitors to our national forests will see only subtle changes in the fire prevention posters. They are often toned down and emphasize the ecology angle – showing, for example, a simple nest with eggs. The wording may be slightly different too – “Only you can help prevent wild fires”.

This quiet shift in Smokey Bear’s image is hoped to promote better understanding of the environment and ecological systems. The aim is to help the public recognize that fire is a natural factor and can be a very positive land management tool when used as a prescribed burn. “The main problem is ignition,” said Zamora, “humans going around lighting fires, with little concern, cause huge damaging wildfires. So, you still can’t go off and leave your campfire burning…Smokey still has that job to do.”