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 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.”
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.