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The West on Fire
Amidst the most catastrophic fires the American West has ever experienced comes a new podcast from the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

"The West on Fire" explores our relationship with fire past, present and future. We learn from dozens of multidisciplinary experts and work towards new ways of thinking about fire in the region.
  1. black and white photo of fire on a mountain shot from a distance
  2. African American firefighters in LA
  3. A picture of Smokey Bear on a sign that reads "Only you can prevent forest fires"
  4. Three people stand looking at the destroyed landscape after a mudflow, one woman has her hands on her head
  5. Fire burns on campfire logs
  6. a man rides his bike across an intersection and the air in hazy
  7. A row of firefighters stand wearing orange fire gear, helmets and black backpacks.
  8. Man looks out into forest from a fire lookout tower.

Ditch Smokey Bear? Not So Fast Says Former Firefighter

A picture of Smokey Bear on a sign that reads "Only you can prevent forest fires"
Smokey Bear's look and message have evolved over the years since he first debuted in 1944. Here he delivers his message on a 1989 poster, before "forest fires" was changed to "wildfires" in 2001. | Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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It was my turn in the suit. As a new seasonal firefighter on the Uinta National Forest crew, I made the rookie mistake of agreeing to don the thick, fake-fur-covered costume of an anthropomorphized bear known to the public as "Smokey." I began to see the folly of my ways when a member of the engine crew walked me over to a freezer to show me the ice vest I would wear under the suit to avoid heatstroke during the 4th of July parade. “You’re going to need this,” he said, but all I could hear was “Sucker!”

Suffering in a heavy Smokey Bear costume in a summertime parade is a rite of passage for many in the Forest Service’s wildland fire community. It’s fun to wear the suit; the crowds, especially children, love Smokey—but it’s hot out there! Wearing the bear suit is not unlike carrying Smokey’s message of preventing wildfire today. It is immediately recognizable but takes much more heat these days than it did in decades past. As wildfires appear more frequently, burn more homes and are increasingly associated with decades of misguided fire suppression, some of the public have called Smokey’s message into question. Despite recent criticism, I still think Smokey has an important job to do, and that his message remains relevant today.

Smokey Bear shakes hands with a young boy in glasses and a striped shirt while other children watch.
Smokey Bear at a Forest Service Christmas Party. The longest-running public service announcement in U.S. history, Smokey is a symbol of fire safety across generations. | USDA Forest Service

Smokey Bear turned three-quarters of a century-old recently. It is the longest-running public service announcement campaign in U.S. history. The simple message, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” delivered by a cartoon bear, connects with young and old alike and translates across cultures and languages.

Native Americans depended on and stewarded the forests, living alongside and strategically using wildfire for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America. But Euro-Americans conceptualized ownership of and used forests much differently—the forest, and specifically timber, was viewed as a valuable commodity to be extracted in massive quantities to supply the energy and material needs for a growing young nation. Thus, for European colonizers, wildfire threatened not only lives, it also threatened a resource with enormous capital value. Once the forests were valued in this manner, that’s when private companies, Western states and their Congressional representatives lobbied heavily for federal protection from wildfire.

Early 20th century fire prevention posters used fear to push their messages. Images that evoked dread, such as wolves and skeletons, were common in the early artwork. For example, one image out of Montana featured a skeleton with a smoking torch listing all the careless ways humans start fires that consume “forests, homes and industries.” Another from Mississippi featured four hooded skeletons on horseback lighting the woods on fire under the banner “Death rides the forest.”

a poster says everybody loses when timber burns under an illustration of dead trees against a red sky
Pre-Smokey Bear government campaigns relied on scary images, like this early 1930s poster. We see the damaging legacy of this anti-fire policy in the frequent, large scale wildfires today. The accumulation of undergrowth and a lack of small fires lead to a fuel buildup that, combined with hotter and drier conditions caused by climate change, creates a tinderbox scenario in the forests. | USDA Forest Service

During World War II, the Office of Wartime Information helped the Forest Service create a number of messages, including a series that featured cartoons of Hitler and dehumanizing caricatures of Japanese leaders warning “careless matches aid the Axis.” Despite these warnings, fires burned up to 32 million acres annually between 1941-1945.

Poster of cartoon animals with text that reads "Please, Mister, Don't be careless" and "Prevent forest fires, greater danger than ever!"
1/7 Pre-Smokey posters invoked other beloved cartoons, like this 1944 poster featuring Bambi and friends. When the rights to Bambi expired, Smokey Bear was created as a new character. | USDA Forest Service
Poster of Smokey Bear pouring a bucket of water with text that reads "Smokey says — Care will prevent 9 out of 10 woods fires!"
2/7 An early 1944 illustration of Smokey Bear by Albert Staehle, part of the U.S. Forest Service Smokey Bear Collection. | USDA Forest Service
Poster of Smokey Bear kneeling with a smaller bear with text that reads "Why?"
3/7 A poster of Smokey Bear from 1959. | USDA Forest Service
Poster of Smokey Bear with two youth scouts and text that reads "They help ... do you?"
4/7 A 1960 Smokey Bear poster featured the Boy Scouts of America and Camp Fire Girls. | USDA Forest Service
Poster of Smokey Bear on a sign that reads "Please, only you can prevent forest fires."
5/7 A 1963 Smokey Bear poster featuring the line "Please, only you can prevent forest fires," which became Smokey's slogan in 1947. | USDA Forest Service