One spring day in 1950 in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico, an operator in one of the fire towers to the north of the Capitans spotted smoke and called the location into the nearest ranger station. The first crew discovered a major fire being swept along the ground between the trees, driven by a strong wind. Word spread rapidly and more crews reported to help. Forest Rangers, army soldiers, Native American crews, men from the New Mexico State Game Department, and civilian volunteers worked together to gain control of the raging fire. As soon as they contained the fire to one spot, the wind would push it across the lines. During one of the lulls in firefighting, a report of a lonely bear cub who had been seen wandering near the fireline was reported. The men left him alone because they thought the mother bear might come for him.
About 30 firefighters, mainly soldiers but also a Capitan High School student, Several soldiers were caught directly in the path of the fire storm, barely escaping by laying face down on a rockslide for over an hour until the fire had burned past them. In spite of the experience, the firefighters were safe except for a few scorches and some burned holes in their clothes.
Nearby, the little cub had been caught in the path of the same fire and had not fared as well. He had taken refuge in a tree that was now completely charred. His climb had saved his life but left him badly burned on the paws and hind legs. The soldiers removed the little bear cub from the burned tree, but they did not know what to do with him. A rancher, who had been helping the firefighters, agreed to take the cub home. A New Mexico Department of Game and Fish Ranger heard about the cub when he returned to the fire camp and drove to the rancher's home to get the bear. The cub needed veterinary aid and was flown in a small plane to Santa Fe where the burns were treated and bandaged.
The news about the little bear spread swiftly throughout New Mexico. Soon the United Press and Associated Press picked up the story and broadcast it nationwide. Many people wrote or called to inquire about the little bear's progress. The State Game Warden wrote an official letter to the Chief of the Forest Service, presenting the cub to the agency with the understanding that the small bear would be dedicated to a publicity program of fire prevention and conservation. The go-ahead was given to send the bear to Washington, DC, where he found a home at the National Zoo, becoming the living symbol of Smokey Bear.
In 1952 Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote the anthem that would cause a debate among Smokey enthusiasts for the next several decades. In order to maintain the correct rhythm, the writers added a "the" between "Smokey" and "Bear". As testament to the song's popularity, Smokey Bear became known as "Smokey The Bear" to many adoring fans, but in actuality his name never changed, and he is still known correctly as Smokey.
Take the Smokey Bear Pledge and
get your SMOKEY MASK here.
You know you want it.