Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 5, 2020

A Letter to Smokey Bear: 70!

Dear Smokey,

This is my first letter to a bear. I’ve met a number of bears over the years — both black and brown ones — from coast to coast, across the U.S., although not many here in California. Our state flag pictures a California grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they’re extinct here. We’re sorry about that. Nothing personal. We hadn’t quite figured it out back in the 1800s when we exterminated them. We humans are slow learners.

Here’s a grizzly, browsing on berries in Denali National Park. One of a number of notable bears I’ve encountered.

Denali NP grizzly Brad Nixon 018_7

I’m writing to congratulate you on the 70th anniversary of your run as the symbol of fire prevention in the forests and wild lands of the United States. Great job, Smokey. Thank you.

I know you didn’t create the role you ended up playing, but you stepped up. The U. S. Forest Service created a symbolic bear, named Smokey, in 1944, as part of a public awareness campaign to promote wildfire prevention.

In that sense, “Smokey” has been around for more than 75 years. But, then….

After a fire crew found you, about three months old, clinging to a tree in the Capitan National Forest of New Mexico in 1950, your paws and legs burned by a fire, you became the living symbol of the erstwhile Smokey the Bear. You’ve been our Smokey since then.

I know you spent most of your life in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I hope the 26 years you spent there were good ones.

Today, Smokey, things are tough here in the west.

Out here, I’m sorry to say, we’re struggling with the wildfire issue. Since you left, things have gotten worse. In the mountains of southeastern New Mexico, where you’re from, it’s dry. The towns of Ruidoso, Lincoln, your own home town of Capitan, have all grown, expanding into places your parents and generations of bears used to roam. There and pretty much everywhere, we’ve created a pending firestorm of problems from the low desert down near Las Cruces to far up in the high Sierra, in California, the Cascades in Washington: everywhere.

Still, we’re trying to pay attention. You keep reminding us. Every time I drive into a national forest, whether it’s low desert scrub — mesquite, sage, ironwood — high plains — grasses, ranging up to juniper and oak — or far up at some elevation with ponderosa pines in the Santa Catalinas above Tucson, even redwoods in northern California and southern Oregon, you’re there.


You’ve been around for my entire lifetime, welcoming me to national forests — from Maine to Florida, the Carolinas to Oregon — but always looking at me with that way you have.

You’re looking good for a seventy year-old. Keep your paw on that shovel.

We’re hard up against fire season here in the west. We had a reasonable amount of rain in the late winter and into spring. Good news for bears: plenty of blackberries, huckleberries. Everything’s drying out, though. Darn it, Smokey, we’re careless, despite your persistent admonition.

Some years ago, The Counselor and I passed through your home town: Capitan, New Mexico. You’re still pretty much Citizen Numero Uno there. Just down the road, Lincoln has Billy the Kid. But Capitan has you. I’d trade a bear for an outlaw any day, even up.

Here’s the Counselor with you in Capitan, the Capitan range behind you, not far from where you shinned up a tree to escape that fire.

Smokey MSV Scan 680

Smokey, since you’re there in Washington, I’d like to ask a favor of you. Would you wander over to the White House or the Capitol and advise our administrators and legislators that they shouldn’t turn your wild lands over to the loggers and miners without even thinking about it? We really like it out there, pretty much the way things are. Take your shovel. You’ll need it.

Best regards, your fan,


Note: In 1950, a fire crew of about 30 forest rangers, local crews from New Mexico, —including volunteers from Taos Pueblo — Texas, and the New Mexico State Game Department survived by lying face-down on rocky ground while a fire swept over them. Soon after that, they found a 3 month-old black bear clinging to a tree: Smokey. A year older than I am.

Smokey died in 1976. A reasonable span for a bear. His legacy will outlive me. Good enough. Only you can prevent wildfires. What Smokey says. Do what he says.

© Brad Nixon 2020; Smokey Bear image © U.S. Forest Service.


  1. I have vivid memories of a seeing a brown bear in Grand Teton NP about twenty years ago which was crossing the road in front of our car. Our only sighting so far!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you saw at least one. I’ve seen them from vehicles and on foot. Sometimes one can be TOO close for comfort.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember when Smokey Bear was Smokey ‘the’ Bear, and when his slogan was, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” The change from ‘forest fires’ to ‘wildfires’ was a good one, and it mae Smokey even more relevant across the country.

    When I moved to Texas and began hanging out at an isolated cabin in the hill country, one of the first bits of advice I was given was to never, ever park in a spot covered in dry grass, since a hot car can start a fire as surely as a tossed cigarette. From basic fire prevention techniques to policy making, there’s a lot of education still needed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes. and that’s still the cause of any number of fires every year — vehicles pulling into dry grass or brush. Thanks.


    • I remember that earlier name and slogan too. Smokey has evolved well.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The way the story goes, the Forest Service created the imaginary “Smokey Bear” in 1944. Officially, that’s always been the name — intentional spelled differently than “smoky,” and with no “the.”
      At some point, probably with the song I remember from childhood, “Smokey the bear” made the name scan, and “the” became a common use, although not official.


  3. Fun post. Smokey is certainly one of the most lovable and successful symbols. Tying the little bear’s story with the existing character was a brilliant Forest Service stroke. Happy Birthday, Smokey! May you continue to evolve, educate and inspire.

    Liked by 1 person

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