Smokey Bear Celebrates His 70th Birthday

August 08, 2014

(Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service and the Ad Council)

Smokey Bear may be turning 70, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down in his mission to spread the message of personal responsibility in preventing wildfires.

Smokey began his public service career in 1944 as a creation of the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council.

Print, outdoor and radio ads came first, followed by TV spots in the late 1960s.  

The Ad Council’s Peggy Conlon said the advent of social media has opened up new worlds of communication to Smokey in the last few years.

"Smokey can’t speak in person," Conlon said. "The person who is in the Smokey Bear costume cannot speak except to say ‘only you can prevent wildfires’. But online is a very different matter."

With more than 25,000 Twitter followers and about 300,000 Facebook fans, an Instagram account and a blog, it’s safe to say he's got some serious social media chops.

"Smokey is a very special social bear," Conlon said. 

But Conlon said the power of Smokey’s traditional message shouldn’t be discounted. The Ad Council estimates that Smokey Bear has a 96 percent awareness among Americans, a figure that’s not often reached through ad campaigns.

"The approach to the campaign has not changed one bit, and I think that’s part of the success of Smokey Bear," she said.

Here in Arizona, Forest Service Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts said the impact of the campaign can still be measured. He said within just the last ten years, the Payson ranger district in Arizona has seen human-caused fires decrease by about 55 percent.

"We’ll always need to heed Smokey Bear," said Roberts.

And since the campaign began, human-caused fires nation wide have decreased by more than 50 percent despite a more than ten-fold increase in public visitation to U.S. forests.

But that doesn’t mean Smokey’s job is easy. Roberts explained that Smokey is currently fighting a misconception that his message was partly to blame for the mid-century practice of putting out all wildfire regardless of origin.

"Actually, if you go back, Smokey never said that we shouldn’t conduct prescribed fire treatments, or thin forests, or even to extinguish all fires. That was never his message," Roberts said.

So what does an icon like Smokey Bear want on his 70th birthday? According to Roberts, just vigilance. But please … no candles.