Ask a Firefighter: The story behind Smokey Bear, patron of a midsummer tradition

Ask a Firefighter: The story behind Smokey Bear, patron of a midsummer tradition

The Westerly Sun

How did Smokey Bear become the face of wildfire prevention in the United States?

The Karl E. Kenyon Smokey Bear Parade has been a popular summer event in our shoreline communities for more than 50 years. The Wildfire Prevention Campaign and a local hero are celebrated with sirens and Smokey Bear on the third Thursday in July. In 2010 the parade was renamed in honor of Kenyon, who was the longtime Dunn’s Corners fire chief and a forest ranger with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management,

The Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history. Smokey is one of the world’s most recognizable characters and his image is protected from misuse by federal law. Despite the campaign’s success over the years, wildfire prevention remains one of the most critical issues affecting our country. Smokey’s message is as relevant and urgent today as it was in 1944 when it began.

According to the U.S. Forestry Service, wildfire season in the U.S. often occurs during the summer when dry conditions increase chances of flame ignition in wooded areas of America. The wildfire season of 2017 was one of the most devastating on record, causing more than $18 billion in damage in the U.S. Ten million acres of land were destroyed and 66 people killed, including 14 firefighters.

The R.I. DEM reminds us that wildland fires can occur at any time of year. The department calls the “Fire Season” those times of the year when there is an increased frequency of wildland fires, and the potential for a large and destructive fire is greatest.

The origins of Smokey Bear date to World War II. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese submarines surfaced near the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., and fired shells that exploded on an oil field, close to the Los Padres National Forest. Fear grew that more attacks would bring a disastrous loss of life and destruction of property, and that combustible shells exploding in the forests of the Pacific Coast would ignite raging wildfires.

To unite Americans and convince them that it would help win the war, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention program with the help of the War Advertising Council and the Association of State Foresters. Together, they created posters and slogans, including “Forest Fires Aid the Enemy,” and “Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon.”

On Aug. 9, 1944, the creation of Smokey Bear was authorized by the Forest Service, and the first poster was delivered on Oct. 10 by the artist Albert Staehle. In 1950, a bear cub was rescued from a wildfire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. The cub took refuge in a tree that became completely charred. The fire crew removed the cub with badly burned paws and hind legs from the tree, and a rancher agreed to take him home and treat the bear for his burns.

News about “Little Smokey” spread throughout New Mexico and soon many people from across America wrote and called, asking about the cub’s recovery. Not long after his recovery, the New Mexico State Game Warden presented the bear cub to the Forest Service with the condition that he would be dedicated to a conservation and wildfire prevention publicity program. The cub was soon on his way to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.

In the words of Smokey Bear, “Only you can prevent wildfires.” The phrase is more than a slogan. It is an important way to care for the world around you.

Please join Smokey Bear and his firefighter friends on Thursday, July 19, for the annual wildfire prevention parade. As always, the parade will begin at 5 p.m. at the Dunn’s Corners Fire Department on Langworthy Road. Residents from all towns are invited to celebrate along the parade route. The parade will stop for about 10 minutes at each of the designated stops.

■Charlestown Beach Parking Lot at about 5:45pm.■Weekapaug on Knowles Avenue at about 6:30pm.■Misquamicut on Crandall Avenue at about 7:15pm.■Watch Hill on Bay St at about 7:30pm.

Jane Perkins is a fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please email her at




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