Fires had been a problem in the western forests but became much more of a concern at the onset of World War II when lumber was in great demand. Any loss of trees by fire was loss of a necessary war material.
To raise the issue of forest fires in the minds of US civilians the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program began in 1944. After much discussion it was decided a bear should become the face and the voice of the program, reminding people to use caution with fire in the woods. The promotional bear was named Smokey.
On May 9, 1950 a fire crew fighting a fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico found a North American Black Bear cub clinging to a tree. He was about 2.5 months old and weighed about 5 pounds. He had burns on his paws and was treated by a veterinarian in Santa Fe. He was named Smokey and flown to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. Now Smokey was a live representative of the Forest Service. He lived to be 26 years old, an average bear in the wild lives to between 20 and 25 years. He died of old age on November 9, 1975. He had been retired in May of 1975 and was replaced by “Little Smokey” another orphaned bear. “Little Smokey” died August 11, 1990 and at that time it was decided to no longer have a live bear be the spokesbear for the fire prevention service.
The original Smokey the Bear is buried at the Smokey Bear Historic Park in Capitan, New Mexico.
This park also educates about fire safety and honors all the New Mexican fire fighters who lost their lives fighting fires. A memorial to them is just steps away from Smokey’s resting place.