Smokey Goes In for Checkup, Cleaning

One of America’s most well-known, beloved and important icons is going to have a little work done over the next several weeks in preparation for his upcoming 70th birthday in 2014.

The mechanical Smokey Bear that welcomes scores of visitors to the U.S. Forest Service headquarters building in Washington, D.C., is going in to have his fur checked, his motor – er, “heart” – fine-tuned and will undergo a thorough cleaning.

The spa treatment coincides with the April 26 closing of the agency’s Information Center, part of an overall renovation of the historic, 135-year-old Sidney Yates Building across the street from the Washington Monument at Independence Avenue and 14th Street SW.

For the last 12 years, a life-sized Smokey has inhabited a desk and chair in a display that re-creates Rudy Wendelin’s famous painting “Smokey’s Fan Mail.” The bear has greeted hundreds of thousands of visitors since then with his husky, but friendly baritone voice that says, “Well, hello, there!”

“I am always amazed at the number of people who come into the center and say they still have their Smokey Bear doll that their parents gave them in the 1950s or ‘60s,” says Elizabeth Glasser, visitor information specialist in the center.

In the early 1940s, the Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign with the help of the Wartime Advertising Council and the National Association of State Foresters. In 1942, Walt Disney had a hit with the movie, “Bambi,” and in 1944 Disney allowed the fawn to be used on a forest fire prevention poster for one year. So a search was on to find an animal that would forever be the nation’s No. 1 firefighter.

In August 1944, Smokey’s “birth certificate” set in motion a promotion that would become the Ad Council’s longest running public service campaign. In 1950, while fighting a major, human-caused fire in the Capitan Mountains in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, firefighters spotted a badly burned bear cub. The cub was flown to safety and cared for until he was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear. He even “married” while at the zoo.

Smokey Bear was recently rated as one of the top five most recognizable icons alongside Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus. Smokey Bear is identified by 97 percent of adults, and 3 out of 4 adults are able to recall his simple yet effective message: Only you can prevent wildfires.

Today, Smokey’s message is more important than ever given changing climates, droughts, pests and disease plaguing forests and grasslands across the country. In the past three years alone, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Colorado have experienced the worst fire seasons in their respective state histories.

“Unfortunately, our forests and grasslands are facing longer and more severe wildfire seasons with each coming year,” said Tom Harbour, head of the Forest Service’s fire program. We need a rejuvenated, fresh Smokey to be back on the job when we all move back into the Yates Building later this year.”

While the Forest Service regrets having to close down the center for six months, the timing will allow for a nice face (and fur) lift just in time for Smokey’s milestone birthday next year.

We’re not sure, however, whether there will be candles on his cake.

“He’s kind of a stickler on these things,” Woodsy Owl explains.