Get Outta Town: Pay your respects to wildfire prevention icon Smokey Bear

by Nick Gonzales

“Only you can prevent wildfires.”

If you’ve been anywhere near a national forest in the past 75 years you should have seen or heard some variation of that slogan. There’s no way to know how many unplanned forest fires it — or the advice associated with it — has prevented, but if you want to pay your respects to the iconic character who said it, you can visit his grave in Capitan, New Mexico. Sorta.

The U.S. Forest Service invented the Smokey Bear mascot in 1944 to help educate forest-goers about the dangers and prevention of wildfires. The character proved popular, even though it was only a public service announcement — at least for a short period of time.

In May 1950, the Capitan Gap Fire raged through New Mexico’s Capitan Mountains and the Lincoln National Forest after a cook stove overheated and began casting sparks. The fire burned 17,000 acres and nearly killed a 24-person firefighting crew that survived by burying themselves beneath the debris of a recent landslide.

The more famous near-victim of the blaze was a 5-pound, 3-month-old black bear that was initially called Hotfoot Teddy. The bear had climbed a tree to escape the fire but had burned its paws and hind legs in the process. A group of soldiers-turned-firefighters from Fort Bliss, Texas, rescued Hotfoot from the tree and Santa Fe veterinarian Edwin Smith nursed him back to health. (A similar tale of ursine survival occurred during the 416 Fire.)

The bear’s tale of survival made national news and the state’s game warden offered to give him to the Forest Service as part of a wildfire prevention campaign. As a result, Hotfoot became the living embodiment of Smokey and flew in a small plane to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. where he lived for 26 years, feasting on peanut butter sandwiches, bluefin and trout. People were so enraptured with the bear that millions visited him and even more sent him letters — over 13,000 per week, forcing the U.S. Postal Service to give him his own zip code (20252).

Smokey was paired with a female named Goldie Bear in 1962 but they failed to produce offspring, so in 1971 the zoo had the couple adopt “Little Smokey,” another orphaned bear from the same forest in New Mexico. Smokey retired in 1975, passing his mantle as the official “Smokey Bear” to his son. Then, in 1976, he died.

Smokey’s remains were flown back to Capitan and interred in a garden at what became the Smokey Bear Historical Park. These days visitors can see the grave and learn about fire ecology, wildland firefighting, and Smokey’s history at the adjacent museum.

Nick Gonzales


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