As a child, Bob Schneider learned early that he never wanted to be a guberif.
“I asked my dad, but he said to ask the ranger,” Schneider said.
After they set up camp and made their way to the campfire where rangers would talk about safety and tell stories, Schneider asked the question.
“Well, that got your attention, didn’t it?” the ranger laughed.
Turns out, guberif is firebug spelled backwards, one way that forest taught wildfire prevention. The ranger also gave the children The True Story of Smokey Bear comic book, first published in 1960 and still available.
Today, Schneider, a retired Sheriff’s deputy, is celebrating a milestone about the same time his “boss,” Smokey Bear celebrates his 75th birthday. If everything goes as planned, by this summer he will have racked up 3,000 hours over the last six years as a volunteer with the Forest Service Conservation Education program.
“It happened that they needed a temporary volunteer about six years ago,” he said. “When the regular volunteer could not return, I stayed on. I tell everyone that I have the best volunteer job in the world—the best job of any kind, really.”
In 2018, Forest Service volunteers served more than 5.2 million hours at a value of $128 million; the equivalent of 2,900 full-time employees. They serve as camp hosts, pick up trash, help with educational programs, serve as citizen scientists, repair historical buildings and make trails passable again.
One out of every ten are 14 and younger. Those volunteers 55 and older are our most loyal volunteers. Around 500, like Schneider, have a disability. Another 1,100 are veterans.
Volunteering is a passion for Schneider. He’s a long-time supporter of Dogs for the Deaf, used his wheelchair to raise money for ALS research, and planted mushrooms spores as part of his work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“At the Forest Service, It’s really about the kids. I love making the kids happy, and I love knowing they are learning something important,” he said. “I’ve had parents tell me that it’s just like Christmas Day when the kids open a packet from Smokey. That’s the exciting part.”
For Schneider, volunteering brought him full circle from his childhood. While a ranger spent time with him, he hopes the letters he sends back with Smokey’s signature provides a long-distance way to help educate children about wildfire prevention.
“When the day gets boring, as it sometimes does, all I have to think about are those kids and what they are learning. And that lesson is very important,” Schneider said.
Schneider’s volunteer focus often spills over into his personal time with as many as 12 weeks a year spent camping. He has long since traded in a tent for a more accessible RV, and at each campout two signs are among the first things he sets up. One highlights Smokey Bear’s wildfire prevention, and the other Woodsy Owl’s conservation message.
Schneider says he recalls an interaction in recent years with adult, probably in his 50s, who stopped by the RV confused by the signs.
“In his whole life, he had never heard of Smokey Bear. I couldn’t understand that, but I explained Smokey’s history, the work he represents, and how nine out of 10 fires are still human caused,” Schneider says. “I guess we still have some work to do.”
Learn more about volunteering with the Forest Service.
Bob Schneider sends information to children who write letters to Smokey Bear, including the comic book The True Story of Smokey Bear. Originally published in 1960, this classic story has endeared generations of children to Smokey and his fire prevention message.
Smokey Bear has his own zip code, so writing him is easy.