Why Smokey Bear Desperately Needs a Makeover
The official Ursus of fire prevention ought to move from figurehead to spokesbear—and wearing a little Nomex wouldn't hurt either
You’ve seen his furry face on posters hanging in ranger stations, in elementary classrooms, or on the bumper sticker of rusty trucks: a bear holding a shovel, with his finger aimed your way: “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” When it comes to American icons, no Ursus is more famous than Smokey Bear. (Sorry, Yogi. Not a chance, Fozzie.) This month marks the 75th anniversary of Smokey, the longest-running public-service campaign in U.S. history.
But since Smokey’s always been one to tell it to us straight, he can handle the truth: Smokey, you need a makeover.
For more than seven decades, Smokey Bear’s growled mantra has remained nearly unchanged. Meanwhile, our thoughts around wildfire have evolved. An icon for the next 75 years needs to reflect our modern approach to forests, our more nuanced understanding of what is happening in them, and his own changing audience. Just like models who were once merely clothes hangers but now run their own companies, or actors who write about personal-health scares and encourage more people to take preventative tests, Smokey Bear needs to become an unfiltered, microphone-wielding, unmuzzled spokesbear.
Today our forests are stuffed with higher fuel loads due to old fire-exclusion policies, like the “ten o’clock rule,” a tactic used through 1978 that demanded the Forest Service have fires under control by 10 A.M. the day after they were found. Eventually, the buildup of saplings, shrubs, and grasses in the understory of these areas forms a fuel ladder, allowing fire to climb from the ground to the forest canopy. Now wildfire intensity has ballooned—along with the annual $2 billion expense of fighting them.
Meanwhile, our climate has changed. California deals with blazes year-round. Nationwide, ten million acres burned during the 2015 fire season. That’s twice the area of Massachusetts. And five of the largest wildfires in Colorado’s history were recorded in 2018. “There are way bigger fires now,” says Jon Hernandez, a former smoke jumper and current lieutenant with the Kirkland Fire Department in Washington. “Twenty years ago, 10,000 acres was a big fire. Now we’re routinely seeing fires upwards of 40,000 acres.”
We Americans have changed, too, and with it our attitude toward flames in the woods. Our national approach to fire has swung from an unequivocal “put it out” to understanding the value of “let it burn.”
It’s time for the official bear of fire prevention to move beyond being a figurehead and get his paws dirty. Smokey, let’s get you a new wardrobe, update your message, and give you a new voice to say it.
Over the years, Smokey’s animators gave him fingers so that he could hold his shovel and carry a pail full of water to douse flames. His sharp claws disappeared from posters, and his teeth were filed down. While our wild bear became more human, he didn’t start talking more.
During Smokey’s golden age, we needed his plea to be simple and forceful. In 1955, America built its interstate highway system. Urban dwellers fanned out across western public lands. The fear of fires in national parks and forests increased with an explosion of campground use. Smokey and his clipped, memorable message were imperative to educate the public so that campfires wouldn’t get out of control.
It wasn’t until 2001, after 57 years of repeating almost the same mantra, that the Ad Council and the U.S. Forest Service updated his dogma from “Only YOU can prevent forest fires” to “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” This one-word edit was made to recognize that fires can burn in other natural areas besides forests—a fact that anyone living in the grasslands of eastern Montana, the Alaskan tundra, or the sage-steppe Southwest already knew from experience.
But today, Smokey needs to do more than point an index finger and scold the public. He needs to educate. Smokey Bear has to talk about the difference between human- and lightning-caused fires. He needs to explain how prescribed fires affect forest health. He can address how living in the wildland-urban interface complicates fire suppression. “It’s more complicated now. We want a dialogue, not a message,” says Robert Thompson, a trustee professor and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.
In this modern age, with so many venues to communicate, Smokey Bear needs his own platform to discuss fire prevention. And it wouldn’t hurt if his actual voice got a makeover, too. The first audio recordings of Smokey’s message were made by an actor speaking into a bucket. Later, the great Sam Elliot took over with his naturally deep and gravelly tone. “He sounds like he’s been in too many fires himself,” says Thompson.
To celebrate Smokey’s recent anniversary, famous (but still older) men were hired to voice the bear’s new emoji: Stephen Colbert, Al Roker, and Jeff Foxworthy. That was a mistake. Smokey Bear may be 75 years old, but he doesn’t have to sound like a grandfather down a well. He needs a voice that a younger, more diverse audience can relate to.
When Smokey Bear talks, I want to hear someone like Pedro Pascal or Donald Glover. Or why not a woman, like Gina Rodriguez? Increasingly, a new generation of people who love the outdoors and need to know more about fire prevention live in cities. They’re hip, ethnically diverse, and physically active, and they flock to wild places for weekend recreation. Forty percent of campers are millennials, and now they’re sharing their outdoor interests with their own children. These recreationalists need a Smokey who makes sense to them, who they want to listen to—and who looks the part.
In both forests and parades, Smokey wears his signature blue jeans, western buckle, and Stetson-style hat. There’s a Mr. Rogers quality to him that is at once consistent and comforting. It’s also totally impractical. If this bear wants to prevent wildfires, he needs to get comfortable with the most cost-effective and efficient way to prevent catastrophic wildfires: prescribed burning. So swap those dad jeans for green firefighting pants and a yellow shirt. “We need a Smokey who wears Nomex with pride,” says University of Washington fire ecologist Susan Prichard.
Prescribed fires are not a golden ticket, but they are a great step toward healthy forest-ecosystem management. In addition to aiding fuel reduction, there are tree species that require fire in order to reproduce. Serotinous pines, such as ponderosa and lodgepole, need the heat from fire to open their cones; then their seeds fall on freshly cleared soil fertilized with ash. Smokey, pick up a drip torch and lead by example.
A few months after American soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, Smokey Bear was created to protect forests for the war effort. Today it’s critical to manage forests for healthy ecosystems. We need a leader who can gain public support for using fire as a tool, a persuasive bear who can help cities near forests and rural towns prepare for living with wildfires.
“Only YOU can prevent wildfires” isn’t going to do the trick anymore. Our spokesbear needs to put the collective “we” into fire prevention. Because fire prevention isn’t about the individual in this day and age—it is a community responsibility to change our behavior.
Smokey Bear is the perfect spokescreature to carry the banner for this new movement of fire management. Even today, 84 percent of wildfires are still caused by humans. Smokey, hurry up! Put on a new outfit and key your microphone—we’re ready to listen.