ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – One of the most iconic balloons seen at Balloon Fiesta is at risk of being grounded. The Smokey Bear balloon is almost 20 years old. The non-profits who operate the balloon and educational program say they’re in desperate need of funding to keep running.
It’s one of the most recognizable special shapes in the sky. “People love this balloon and we get so many people watching it and commenting on it,” said Elizabeth Wright-Smith, the pilot for the Smokey Bear balloon.
But the iconic balloon is at risk of staying out of the skies. The non-profits Friends of Smokey Bear and Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon usually travel around the country sharing the balloon and Smokey’s message of wildfire prevention. But the organizations are low on funds.
“COVID hurt us pretty badly,” said Wright-Smith. She said they weren’t able to travel around the country and do educational programs, which is how they typically would generate funds. “The other thing that hurt was the Forest Service has been a big part of the Smokey Bear balloon program and they haven’t been able to contribute,” said Wright-Smith. “They do come out and help us put it up but they haven’t been able to help us monetarily anymore so that took another hit.”
Friends of Smokey Bear is trying to raise $60,000 to keep the educational program running. Meanwhile, Friends of Smokey Bear Balloon needs a brand new balloon. “It’s getting tired. But it still looks good so you can’t really tell it’s getting tired,” said Wright-Smith.
The current balloon is about 20 years old. Wright-Smith said they bought a new envelope after the old balloon made national headlines. It crashed into a radio tower in 2004. A man and a 10-year-old boy were forced to scale down the tower into a rescue basket. The envelope bought after that has been flying ever since.
“But it has to pass an inspection like any other aircraft and any other balloon, and we’re not sure how many more inspections it’s going to pass,” said Wright-Smith. She suspects the current balloon has about two years left. It will cost around $135,000 to buy a new Smokey Bear balloon. “Special shapes are not inexpensive balloons. but it’s so cool, it’s worth it,” said Wright-Smith.
She hopes they’ll raise the money in time for a new balloon. “I have so many people tell me that this is their favorite balloon. So, it’d be really sad to not see it flying again,” she said. Even more so, she noted the importance of sharing Smokey’s message.
“It’s going to get very dry and it will be very easy to start fires, and we really want to help prevent that with the Smokey Bear balloon program,” she said.
The Smokey Bear balloon is already registered for the 2023 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Wright-Smith said the program will soon travel to Utah and California for the educational program.