Published on September 1, 2019.

Smokey at 75

Smokey Bear's birthday was in August. To honor the occasion, NFPA Journal presents 11 facts about America's favorite ursine firefighter. 

A joint creation of the US Forest Service and The Ad Council, Smokey debuted on August 9, 1944, on a poster depicting him dumping a pail of water on a flaming campfire.

Smokey is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in US history. Although officially named Smokey Bear, many know him better as Smokey the Bear. That’s because in 1952, songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote a song about Smokey, adding “the” to his name in the chorus to maintain the song’s rhythm.

According to The Ad Council, Smokey is a 300-pound black bear, but he wasn’t always that brawny. He weighed just a pound and a half at birth.

Smokey’s famous slogan—“Remember … Only you can prevent forest fires”—debuted in 1947. In 2001, it was officially changed to “Only you can prevent wildfires” to reflect unwanted fires on other landscapes, such as grasslands.

Smokey does not hibernate, according to The Ad Council. Wildfire prevention keeps him busy year round, even in winter, when the rest of his bear brethren are enjoying deep sleeps.

Smokey Bear’s name and image are legally protected by Congress. The Smokey Bear Act of 1952 specifies fines of up to $250 and jail time of up to six months for improper use of Smokey.

In 1950, wildland firefighters in New Mexico rescued a badly burned bear cub from a tree and named him Smokey. The bear was sent to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he lived until his death in 1976. His body was then returned to New Mexico and buried in an area now designated Smokey Bear Historical Park.

In 1985 alone, B.B. King, Cheech and Chong, The Grateful Dead, and Leonard Nimoy (who played the character Spock in Star Trek) each did minute-long radio spots for forest-fire prevention, all using Smokey’s patented phrase.

In 1944, before Smokey arrived, Walt Disney animal characters Bambi, Thumper, and Flower adorned posters for US forest fire prevention posters.

Smokey Bear has received so much mail that the US Postal Service gave him his own ZIP Code in 1965. You can now write him simply by addressing the envelope to Smokey Bear, Washington, DC, 20252.