Smokey Bear, the iconic symbol of wildfire prevention for 70 years, is for many people a comforting symbol of a promise that everything will be okay. As long as we all work together, as one of Smokey’s young pen pals wrote recently.
“Dear Smokey: I would like to be a Junior Forest Ranger and help the big rangers. I promise to look after the forest and watch out for baddies making fires and damaging trees. Love Adam”
The letters come one-by-one or in neatly piled stacks, with carefully drawn portraits and hastily scrawled letters. They want to know if Smokey Bear is okay. They ask if he can write to them. They show compassion, knowing Smokey’s mother did not make it out of the fire.
“Dear Smokey: I think your story was awesome. I want to prevent forest fires. I am with you forest fires stink. I am so sorry that your mother past away. Some day I want to be like you. Reed”
For 70 years, hundreds of thousands of letters have landed on Smokey Bear’s desk, sometimes addressed as only “Smokey Bear 20252.” The letters came even though 10 years ago Smokey’s specially designated ZIP code was decommissioned.
But thanks to the joint efforts of the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Postal Service, 20252 is once again Smokey Bear’s official ZIP code. The reinstatement of the official ZIP code also comes just in time for Smokey’s 70th birthday.
“Luckily, the letters never stopped coming,” said Bob Schneider, the Forest Service volunteer who helps Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl open mail and answer letters. “I spent my entire life living near and camping in national forests, and you can’t underestimate the importance of the lessons taught by Smokey Bear. Generations of children have learned to be more careful and not to play with matches.
“I was one of those children. And today, I could not be more proud than to be helping Smokey Bear continue to teach that ‘Only you can prevent wildfires.’”
“Dear Smokey the Bear. I love you so much! You are my hero! I live in Wisconsin and we have the amazing, the beautiful, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Love Future Forest Ranger/Smokey’s Friend Flynn”
In 1944, the Forest Service and the Ad Council agreed that a fictional character would be the symbol for fighting forest fires. The fictional character became real six years later after a bear cub was found in the aftermath of a wildfire on the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico. By 1964, Smokey Bear began receiving so many letters from children that the Postal Service awarded 20252 as Smokey’s official ZIP code. The letters, drawings and even Christmas cards have not stopped coming. And they are not always from children.
“Dear Smokey: My grandson is turning 4, and I would like him to start learning about wildfires. You were so good to my children. Could you send something to him?”
Smokey’s mailbox also gets big letters like the 24-inch by 30-inch pieces of paper from a Ohio pre-school that includes a list of questions from the 4-year-olds:
“Did you ever go camping? Josh”
“Where do you live now? Sophia”
“You’re my best friend. Myla”
“I want you to live with me. Braden”
Some letters are poignant, reminding those who work with Smokey that all kinds of lessons can be learned. Like the one written on yellow lined paper in carefully printed letters.
“I am writing to you in concern of getting help to send my beautiful daughter some gifts. I have been locked up since December 4, 2007, and I love my wife and children deeply . . . My daughter has Downs-syndrome. I have made some very bad decisions in my life, and my wife and children have paid for my wrongs.”
“Smokey sent his daughter a packet of information,” Schneider said. “It’s always been about the kids.”
Editor’s Note: Letter excerpts are printed as written.