By Cydney Janssen of the USDA Forest Service (Smokey Bear images used with the permission of the USDA Forest Service)


In 1941, an Imperial Japanese Navy submarine shelled an oil field near Santa Barbara and the Los Padres National Forest. Many experienced firefighters were away fighting in the Second World War and there was widespread concern that wildfires, whether started by America’s enemies at the time, or careless neighbors, could not only ravage the west coast, but become a serious nation-wide problem. Walt Disney allowed animal characters from the popular “Bambi” movie to be used in a successful wildfire prevention poster for one year only. The Forest service’s fire prevention campaign needed a new illustrated animal ambassador.


On August 9, 1944, the character of Smokey Bear was created by the Forest Service as a symbol of wildfire prevention The first poster was delivered on October 10 by artist Albert Staehle, depicting a bear pouring a bucket of water on a campfire. Smokey Bear soon became popular, and his image began appearing on more posters and cards.


In 1950 a five-pound black bear cub was rescued from a wildfire in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico during the Capitan Gap fire, where the cub was burned escaping the fire. The cub, named Smokey Bear, continues to serve as a living symbol of the fire prevention program.


By 1952 Smokey Bear began to attract commercial interest. An act of Congress that year removed Smokey from the public domain, placing him under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture, providing for the use of collected royalties and fees for continued wildfire prevention education and launching the message: “Only you can prevent forest fires,” then transitioning to “Only you can prevent wildfires.” 


Many children first became aware of Smokey and his message in the early 1950s when elementary school students received the Weekly Reader, a long-standing scholastic and classroom news magazine, which highlighted Smokey Bear and the forest fire prevention messages.


Smokey Bear’s image and messaging are well known throughout the United States and are at the heart of the longest-running public service campaign in American history. Smokey’s human-like appearance, including a forest ranger hat and blue jeans, is credited to Rudolf “Rudy” Wendelin, a U.S. Forest Service illustrator who oversaw Smokey’s appearance from 1946 until Wendelin’s retirement in 1973.


On Smokey Bear's 50th anniversary year, the June 9, 1994 issue of The Daily Courier announced that a piloted Smokey Bear head-shaped hot air balloon would float over the Prescott Valley Pronghorn Balloon Classic rally. This Smokey Bear hot air balloon program began in New Mexico and was a partnership of volunteers, private sponsors, the National Association of State Foresters, and the USDA Forest Service. It is now managed by the Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon and continues to be an effective public messaging program, probably because, as the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest Headquarters puts it in their article Going to Great Heights for Fire Prevention, “What better cue is there than a ninety-seven-foot [tall] bear head?”


Smokey’s message still resonates today. The Yavapai Communities Wildfire Protection Plan details 19 “notable” fires (fires larger than 5000 acres or that have threatened Yavapai county communities) from 2002 to 2023. Many of these fires are known or suspected to have been caused by people. The Brins Fire in 2006 grew from an illegal campfire near Sedona. In 2012 the Gladiator Fire is believed to have started from a structure fire on private property. Road work in 2020 is believed to have caused the Horse Fire.


From May 21 through May 31, the Sharlot Hall Museum, in collaboration with the Prescott National Forest will feature nineteen Smokey Bear paintings done by Wendelin as part of the build-up to Smokey’s 80th birthday on August 9. On loan from the USDA National Agriculture Museum, the paintings were done between 1977 and 1995. They may also be viewed here online at:


 In addition, a free lecture on Firewise practices and fire prevention in the Greater Prescott Area Wildfire Protection and Restoration High Priority Fireshed will be presented at the Sharlot Hall Museum Education Center Auditorium on May 25 at 2:00 p.m. 


“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International ( This and other Days Past articles are also available at The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at for information or assistance with photo requests.