NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – America’s most famous black bear, Smokey Bear, is turning 79 on Wednesday. This birthday marks the creation of the fictional bear and campaign created by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters in 1944.

The fictional Smokey Bear was created “to try to encourage the American people to be more careful with wildfire,” explained Mary Lavin, manager at the Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico. Smokey Bear’s iconic catchphrase is, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

Lavin said that not many people know that a real Smokey Bear came about following the creation of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign. The story of the real Smokey Bear begins in 1950 when a wildfire sparked in the Capitan Mountains in Lincoln County, New Mexico. A little bear cub was seen running in the fire and appeared to be badly burned.

“One of the crew members actually grabbed him by the scruff and stuffed him in his jacket and brought him back to fire camp,” Lavin explained.

Young Smokey on top of the front of a plane with Ray Bell standing on the side looking at him in 1950. (Credit: Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library | U.S. Forest Service Smokey Bear Collection)

The bear cub was brought from the fire camp to Doctor Edwin Smith’s veterinarian clinic in Santa Fe by Ray Bell, a game officer. Once recovered, the bear then went to live at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and passed away in 1976. His gravesite is located at the Smokey Bear Historical Park.

Lavin said staff are oftentimes surprised when family and friends related to the people who saved Smokey Bear from the fire visit the park.

“We have a really fun, what we call a family album, where we will collect some information on who this special friend or relative in Smokey’s special story is, which is really really fun,” said Lavin.

The park also celebrates the day Smokey Bear was found in the forest.

“I kinda call that the Smokey Bear ‘Gotcha Day,’ when the living symbol was recovered, and we celebrate that on May the 9th,” Lavin explained.

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Despite all the time that has passed since the fictional Smokey Bear was created, his messaging is still relevant as wildfires continue to form all across the United States.

“Smokey’s message has always been to prevent unwanted, human-caused wildfires that end up being catastrophic and really severe. That message is relevant today because we still have forests, and woodlands, and grasslands, natural resources that we live, and play, and work in, that people really cherish,” Lavin said.

Many forests across the country are also dealing with a handful of issues including accumulating fuels that are detrimental to the forest’s health, according to Lavin.

“With the climate changing, warmer and drier trends that we have been able to track scientifically, we also know that a lot of our forests are not very healthy. There’s a lot of overcrowded forests and woodlands which creates a lot of stress, which makes them susceptible to insects and disease, which then also makes them very susceptible to wildfires,” said Lavin.

Carson National Forest fire crews are monitoring a wildfire upslope from the intersection of the Lake Fork and Bull Creek trails in the Latir Wilderness and northeast of Cabresto Lake. June 24, 2023. (Credit: Carson National Forest via NM Fire Info)

Amanda Fry, public affairs officer for Lincoln National Forest, spoke to KRQE News 13 about wildfire prevention tips. She said it is important to be cautious of actions taking place in the forest, especially during wildfire season, which takes place from April to September in New Mexico.

“Proper precautions would be to, if you’re going to have a campfire, just make sure everything’s properly drowned, the campfires drowned and completely cool to the touch before you leave. Be mindful of where you’re parking. People don’t often think about that, but if you’re parking in tall grass and stuff like that, the heat from your engine can actually start a grass fire,” Fry explained.

Fry also said people shouldn’t leave behind anything that could start a fire, and people should monitor forest and weather conditions. She recommended checking online or on social media to see if there are any restrictions in place at the forest.

Today, people can still write letters to Smokey Bear like they did while he was at the zoo.

“This is a fun fact that a lot of folks don’t know. I believe only in the United States, only the president of the United States and Smokey Bear have their own zip code. Everybody else has to share. So, 20250 is Smokey’s very own zip code,” Lavin said.

For more information on wildfire prevention tips and more, click here.