Leadership Corner

Smokey’s legacy

August 9th, 2019 at 8:46AM
Portrait of Chief Vicki Christiansen in uniform.
Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen

Like many of us at the Forest Service, I started my career in fire, and I have always relied on Smokey Bear. Fire prevention is part of our cultural DNA.

It started with Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. In his 1905 Use Book for line officers, Pinchot noted that “care with small fires is the best way to prevent large ones” (Pinchot 1905). He instructed line officers to “cheerfully and politely” teach visitors about safe fire use.

Vintage poster of Smokey
Figure 1—The first Smokey poster, based on a painting by Albert Staehle, showed Smokey teaching campfire safety. Source: USDA National Agricultural Library (1945)

Like Smokey Bear would eventually do (fig. 1).

The early Forest Service took Pinchot’s guidance to heart, and by the time this journal was founded in 1936, the agency had a well-developed fire prevention program. The first few issues of Fire Control Notes featured articles on prevention issues related to incendiary fires, fires started by railroads and powerlines, and accidental ignitions caused by forest visitors and residents.

During World War II, the ethics of fire prevention extended to national security. Beginning in 1942, a Japanese campaign of incendiary balloons started forest fires in some Western States (Jameson 2017). The Japanese attacks raised national awareness that timber supplies were critical to the war effort, and the Forest Service joined The War Advertising Council (now the Ad Council) and the National Association of State Foresters in establishing the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program. The program launched a campaign to make fire prevention a matter of civic pride and patriotism (Lawter 1994) (fig. 2).

Vintage fire prevention posters
Figure 2—Early fire prevention posters with patriotic themes. A World War II poster with Uncle Sam calling for fire prevention foreshadowed a series of postwar Smokey posters featuring the message, “This shameful waste!” Source: Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program.

In 1944, the partners sought a national fire prevention symbol, and Smokey Bear was born. Building on wartime patriotism, Smokey’s early posters featured the message, “This shameful waste weakens America!” Through such appeals, Smokey proved to be more effective and enduring than other early fire prevention symbols.

In the 7 decades since, Smokey has appeared not only in posters but also in song and story; on radio and TV; in living form as a bear at the National Zoo; and “in person” across the Nation, both with celebrities and at events such as parades, rodeos, and baseball games. In tribute to Smokey’s longevity, we are celebrating his 75th birthday this year.

Since 1944, the CFFP Program has solidified Smokey’s legacy as an icon of American culture. In 2001, Smokey’s message changed its focus from forest fires to wildfires, which happen not only in forests but also in shrublands, grasslands, and other landscapes. The change to “Only you can prevent [unwanted] wildfires” also conveyed the message that Smokey does not oppose the professional use of wildland fire to maintain healthy ecosystems.

Smokey’s warning not to start unwanted wildfires still makes sense:

  • Almost all wildfires—nearly 9 in 10 nationwide—are caused by people, not by nature.
  • People start fires heedless of their environmental effects, usually through carelessness, negligence, or arson.
  • Preventable wildfires can cause environmental damage as well as untold human tragedy, including the loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods.
  • Preventable wildfires nationwide can cause billions of dollars’ worth of damage each year and cost billions more to suppress or manage.
“Still on Guard,” by Rudy Wendelin (commemorating Smokey’s 40th anniversary in 1984). Source: Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program.
“Still on Guard,” by Rudy Wendelin (commemorating Smokey’s 40th anniversary in 1984). Source: Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program.

Accordingly, Smokey remains on guard today with his trademark warning: “Only You!”

As this issue of Fire Management Today shows, Smokey Bear has become part of our national heritage. Since 1944, Smokey has become emblematic of the “watchful fire patrol” envisioned for the Forest Service by Gifford Pinchot. I am confident that, with your support, Smokey will long endure as America’s national symbol of wildfire prevention.

For more on Smokey's efforts over the past 75 years, check out the latest issue of Fire Management Today.

Literature cited:

  • Karns, J. 2017. A fire management assessment of Operation FuGo. Fire Management Today. 75(1): 53–57.
  • Lawter, W.C., Jr. 1994. Smokey Bear 20252: a biography. Alexandria, VA: Lindsay Smith Publishers. 406 p.
  • Pinchot, G. 2005 [1905]. The use of the national forest preserves: regulations and instructions. Loveland, CO: Western Heritage Company. 142 p.
Cover: Fire Management Today
The latest issue of Fire Management Today is dedicated entirely to Smokey Bear's 75th birthday.