A marketing campaign considered by many the most successful in the history of advertising will celebrate a significant milestone next year, and in doing so bring some attention to this part of the state.
A group of Forest Service employees and others involved in planning the 75th anniversary celebration of Smokey Bear — the iconic character that has, for generations, promoted wildfire prevention — were in Roswell recently looking to create partnerships in advance of the festivities and scout nearby locations for planned educational videos.
Many perhaps think of the Smokey Bear icon and his persistent warnings as kid stuff — and kids have largely been the target audience. Lessons like the ones this campaign has focused on for decades are taught to children for a reason — hopefully, the lessons stick, become habits and last them the rest of their lives. Any adult wise enough to also heed the warnings, changing old habits for the better, is one more step in the right direction for all of us, especially the many who live in areas most in line for damage from unplanned fires.
It seems that number, thanks to a wide variety of contributing factors — some controllable, some not — continues to grow, as witnessed by frequent reports of fires and their more and more widespread destruction. The campaign’s message (which has morphed over the years from “Only you can prevent forest fires” to “Only you can prevent wildfires”) seems as important now as it’s ever been. And not just for kids.
Many reading this already know the connection between the famous ad campaign and Capitan, and so can guess the reason those organizing the 75th anniversary events were in this region. The campaign, complete with the Smokey Bear icon, launched in 1944 as a fire prevention initiative begun as part of the war effort. A few years later, in 1950, a badly burned bear cub rescued from a fire in the nearby Capitan Mountains became forever linked with the effort, as a living embodiment of the icon.
The story of the cub, who would come to be named Smokey, spread rapidly, and the state’s game warden eventually presented the little guy to the Forest Service with the caveat that he be used as part of conservation and wildfire prevention programs. The bear lived the rest of his life at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and when he died in 1976, his remains were returned to Capitan State Park for burial, where there’s now a Smokey Bear Historical Park and Museum.
That’s what brought the anniversary organizers here — they used Roswell as a base while traveling throughout the area in preparation for next year’s events, which will begin at the Tournament of Roses Parade in January; continue with a spring ribbon cutting at the real-life Smokey’s former enclosure at the National Zoo; be followed by the release of a video production in October; and culminate with a live event from the Capitan Gap in November. The desire to continue the campaign’s educational mission — focused, as always, on kids — underpins the entire slate of activities.
When event organizers stopped by the Roswell Daily Record office, Linda Hecker, an interpretive planner for the Forest Service, put the icon’s continuing relevance into perspective.
“I think he’s more relevant,” she said, “ because back in the war effort it was about saving this resource to help aid in winning the war. Today, we have more people moving into the what we call the wildland/urban interface …
“We know now that we can’t suppress all fire, because so many of our ecosystems are fire dependent. So how do you strike that balance, between people living in that wildland/urban interface area, and the need for fire in that ecosystem? There’s times when you can put fire on the ground, and there’s times when you shouldn’t put any fire on the ground.
“Striking the balance — that’s the challenge that we all face. That’s where Smokey comes in. When it’s time not to put fire on the ground, let’s not do it accidentally. Let’s keep fire in its place.”
We all know that’s a good plan, and we all know the Smokey Bear campaign works. Next year will bring many reminders of why that is — and meanwhile, we can all hope for fewer reminders of why it’s needed.
John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.