The living symbol of Smokey Bear was a five-pound, three-month old American black bear cub who was found in the spring of 1950 after the Capitan Gap fire, a wildfire that burned in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. Smokey had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been burned. Local crews who had come from New Mexico and Texas to fight the blaze removed the cub from the tree.
Previously in 1942, the U.S. Forest Service established the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention (CFFP) program. The same year, on August 13, Disney’s full-length animated motion picture Bambi premiered in New York City. Soon after, Walt Disney allowed his characters to appear in fire prevention public service campaigns. However, Bambi was only loaned to the government for a year, so a new symbol was needed. After much discussion, a bear was chosen based on a rough sketch by Forest Service artist Harry Rossoll. His name was inspired by “Smokey” Joe Martin, a New York City Fire Department hero who suffered burns and blindness during a bold 1922 rescue.
Smokey Bear remains a symbol that only we can help prevent wildfires, loss of life, property and nature.