"Smokey's Revenge," by Charles E. Little

From: American Forests 99 (May/June 1993): 24-25, 58-60.
This short article discusses the legacy of another pervasive cultural icon--Smokey the Bear--which was created at about the same time as Bambi and also has ambivalent environmental implications.


One of the early Smokey the Bear posters, dating from 1945.  While the appearance of Smokey has changed over the years, the basic message has not.  According to Little: "This amiable symbol of fire-as-evil-force has turned on his masters and helped to create today's 'forest of torches.'"

It is impossible for environmentalists of a certain age, especially if they grew up in the West (such as I), to be anything but ambivalent about Smokey Bear. Let's face it--in many circles the bear is a pariah. Even at the National Zoo in Washington, which tends to be inclusive, the popular Smokey Bear exhibit was quietly dismantled in 1991--after having featured since 1950 a bear going by this name (involving two separate animals). The point is, Smokey's ecological correctness quotient is low, as an increasing number of forest ecologists have been pointing out in recent years. We anthropomorphize at our peril.

But if ever as a child you saw a roaring forest fire creeping down a mountainside toward your home, the night sky bright with the lurid reflection of flame against a towering curtain of rising smoke; and if etched in your memory is the picture of your father up on the roof, his dark figure limned against the advancing front while he frantically sprays the alighting embers with a garden hose--then your appreciation of Smokey is at a deeper level, and difficult to shake.

For me these fearful images (we escaped, but not all did) are especially meaningful, for during the very summer (1943) of the big fire in the Angeles National Forest, which our neighborhood abutted, my father got a job at an advertising agency called Foote, Cone & Belding. And among his early assignments was to help prepare a campaign to reduce the forest fires that were plaguing the West in wartime years. He didn't invent Smokey Bear, and I suspect he had little or no direct responsibility for the advertising itself. But, of course, that is not what I told my friends at school. So far as I was concerned, the new Smokey poster on the bulletin board was my Dad's idea, and you'd better not say it wasn't. Or else.

Now that I have acquainted you with my biases, let me disabuse you of their implications.

Perversely, most people see the present-day forests, however modified by human intervention they may be, as "natural," while at the same time believing that fire- any fire--is unnatural. This is a misconception that forest ecologists have for years been at pains to correct, but to little avail. As we have learned, the misconception has had a profound effect on forest policy, wherein historically the harvesting of big trees has been encouraged while fire has been suppressed. The effect was a self potentiating cycle of ecological change that altered the composition of forests in the western mountains so decisively--from widely spaced big trees to thickets of shade tolerant species--that their vulnerability to drought and insect infestation, and therefore fire, is a virtually permanent condition.

The world was treated to an example of the results of our misconceptions about what is "natural" and what isn't in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 when nearly half the Park's 2.2 million acres, tucked into the far northwest corner of Wyoming, were burned over.

"Everything about the fires seemed exaggerated," wrote fire historian Stephen J. Pyne of the event in Natural History magazine. "Groves of old-growth lodgepole pine and aging spruce and fir exploded into flame like toothpicks before a blowtorch. Towering convective clouds rained down a hailstorm of ash, and firebrands even spanned the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Crown fires propagated at rates of up to two miles per hour, velocities unheard of for forest fuels. A smoke pall spread over the region like the prototype of a nuclear winter. Everything burned."

The official confusion over what to do about the Yellowstone fires--whether to let them burn or put them out--could in substantial part be laid to Smokey's account. For 50 years this admonitory cartoon animal, created by the U.S. Forest Service and my father's firm in 1944, had inculcated the belief in every schoolchild, every Campfire Girl, every Boy Scout, Girl Scout, Brownie, and Cub in the United States that forest fires are bad, and that they are the fault, usually, of a "careless smoker," of those who do not heed the gruff warning to "drown your campfires," or even perhaps those who are enemies of democracy.

One result of this propaganda has been that any effort to reduce the threat of fire by purposely burning off accumulated fuels in a place like Yellowstone was hamstrung by a popular belief that there was no such thing as a "good" fire. Accordingly, the fuel built upon itself, year after year, decade after decade. While forest fires regularly broke out, they were, through most of the Park's history, hurriedly extinguished in compliance with the popular horror of forest fire of any kind--a view preached since World War II by the amiable bear. In the end, this ursine cartoon animal may have done more to increase the risk of future mass fire in the West than to reduce it--simply by making forest fires unpatriotic.

Smokey's apologists have always insisted that the campaign is, and has been, directed at human-caused fires, that the message has never argued against prescribed burning or even natural fires. The bear's official "biographer," Ellen Earnhardt Morrison, is outraged at the idea that Smokey has been accused of having "brainwashed" people into thinking that all fires should be prevented. "To a bear who has been a hero for a whole generation," she writes in her charming history of the Smokey Bear campaign, The Guardian of the Forest (1989), "such criticism must come as a shock. What has happened in the last decade to make anyone question his motives? Why is he suddenly the object of scorn?"

I do not scorn Smokey, for the personal reason recounted at the beginning of this essay, and perhaps a more objective one that I will offer in a moment. Nevertheless, I have worked as an advertising man myself, and I will assure you that no 10-year- old child--and children are the major focus of the Smokey campaign--and probably very few adults for that matter, can be expected to hold such subtly nuanced views about different kinds of fire, even if the distinctions were made in the advertising, which they were not and are not. However much some in the modern Forest Service may now wish otherwise, Smokey's sponsors were correctly counseled by the Foote, Cone & Belding account executives that you cannot suggest some forest fires are acceptable and some aren't. That may be good ecology, but it isn't good advertising.

But let us go back to the beginning. The first national antiforest-fire campaign (sans Smokey) was developed in the early 1940s in response to an astonishing outbreak of wildfire in the early years of World War II, a time during which manpower for firefighting was scarce--the CCC boys (the Civilian Conservation Corps of Roosevelt's New Deal) having all been drafted. During the war years, the annual burn consumed an average of 30 million acres, an area more than half the size of the entire state of Wyoming. By contrast, even in the conflagrated year of 1988, with mass fires not only in Yellowstone but throughout the Rockies, only 7.4 million acres burned in the U.S.--twice as much as in some recent years, but only a quarter of what was destroyed during a typical war year.

The specific event that led to the invention of Smokey was the 1942 shelling of a Santa Barbara, California, oilfield by a Japanese submarine. The oilfield was close by the Los Padres National Forest, then tinder-dry, and the possibility of further shelling was anything but remote in those days. In fact, my uncle, a ham radio operator whose "shack" was perched on a Palos Verdes, California, bluff overlooking a large patch of ocean not far from the naval shipyard at San Pedro, spotted what might have been a small submarine offshore that same year. Excitedly he radioed the sighting to the Coast Guard, and within minutes jeeps with mounted 50-caliber machine guns appeared on the beach below his house and began firing into the water. A short while later, patrol boats equipped with depth charges approached from the flanks. A tiny white flag appeared out beyond the breakers, and a Japanese two-man sub, herded by the patrol boats, surfed up onto the sand.

Meanwhile, from Oregon and northern California came reports of incendiary balloon bombs sent up by Japanese warships offshore. Carried in by the prevailing westerlies, the bombs were meant to descend on the forests of the Coast Range and even the Sierra-Cascades. The defenseless forests of America, so necessary to the war effort when everything from Liberty Ships to rifle stocks needed wood, had to be saved from the nefarious schemes of the Axis powers, whose assaults on the continental U.S. included not only shelling and balloon bombs from the sea but Fifth Column sabotage on land. My father and other advertising sloganeers got busy. "Careless Matches Aid the Axis," they wrote. "Our Carelessness, Their Secret Weapon."

After a few false starts (including a plain-so poster campaign, later improved upon by the introduction of "Bambi," courtesy of Walt Disney), the bear himself was conceived in 1943, and finally appeared in 1944. The familiar slogan, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires," was introduced after the war's end, in 1947. Smokey's broadcast voice was that of a Washington, DC, radio personality, Jackson Weaver, who spoke into an empty wastepaper basket to achieve a properly authoritarian and patriarchal effect. Since then, Smokey Bear has become a symbol of what the U.S. Forest Service hopes is perceived as its faithful stewardship of the nation's forest lands. Indeed, Smokey's image is guarded so zealously that environmental organizations seeking to use illustrations of the bear to advance their own views on forest management, in opposition to the Forest Service, are told that such a use can lead to fines and imprisonment under a law enacted in 1952 to guard against improper commercial use of the image by trinket makers and retail businesses.

Thus did the accreted iconography of Smokey, originated in a flurry of wartime patriotism, endow the bear with powers far exceeding those of merely reminding youngsters to be careful with matches. Aside from the subversive use of Smokey's image by citizen groups, the bear turned on his masters even more significantly by inhibiting a modern "prescribed burning" policy aimed at reducing accumulated fuels in National Forests during a period--the first two or three decades after World War II--when adopting such a policy might have helped to mitigate the firetrap that present-day western forests have become.

The Forest Service came late to the prescribed-burn concept--setting fire to patches of flammable woods to reduce the risk of a mass fire that might burn out of control - and has always seemed conflicted about it. Part of the reason may have to do with the agency's political history. According to Stephen Pyne, it was an anti-prescribed- burning position early in this century that brought to prominence the new service created to manage the nation's forest reserves. The pivotal event was a battle with California timber owners who employed a form of fire control called "light burning" to keep woodlands clear of underbrush, a practice the Californians had borrowed from the Indians. The fledgling Forest Service, looking for a public-relations angle to gain popular and political support, argued that to allow light burning was to undermine the forest-protection message which the agency, as an intrepid firefighter, was determined to advance.

If advocating fire suppression on industrial forests was the agency's route to congressional notice and bureaucratic clout, it could do little about fires in remote areas, and as painful as it was to do so, the Service invented a policy called "let burning." It allowed backcountry fires to burn themselves out in order to conserve scarce manpower for battling flame in more commercially accessible timber stands. But with the advent of the Depression 1930s, and the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Forest Service found a way to fight fires everywhere. The CCC provided a large, lowcost manpower pool that could be trained in firefighting.

Within a few years, the Forest Service virtually took over the CCC in much of the West. The onset of World War II severely depleted the CCC ranks, and the camps were closed. Once again, fires raged unchecked throughout the western mountains-- another let-burn policy by default. This time, however, the Forest Service had a counter: the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign, starring Smokey Bear. The result was not only an astonishingly successful advertising program that helped reduce forest fires but also a vehicle that would turn the U.S. Forest Service into a government agency to be reckoned with.

Although the overriding concern with "mass fire" began with World War II as a matter of national defense, the Forest Service did not allow public fears of forest fires to subside after the war. Smokey Bear's anti-fire message was continued in intensive postwar campaigns that could be justified in part by a new set of national defense anxieties, this time related to an expected atomic attack once the Soviet Union had succeeded in developing its own nuclear bomb in 1949. The bomb was, says Stephen Pyne, "the quintessential incendiary weapon" and a persuasive reason to keep Smokey on guard.

And so, with manpower problems significantly eased after the boys at arms returned home, and with the public squarely in favor of an all-out effort, the Forest Service could again mount a comprehensive assault on forest fire, even in the remotest places. The policy now was to put small fires out--every single one of them--before they became big fires, a patriotic duty easily justified after several years of Smokey Bear propaganda and further promoted by public-relations films and news stories: Eremitic rangers scanned the horizon from their fire towers for any wisp of smoke. Valiant smokejumpers--former paratroops--hit the silk to get at remote blazes as quickly as possible. C-102 "flying boxcars" swooped low over the flames, with ex bombardiers dropping chemical suppressants through the cargo doors. Sooty-faced crews of fireline troops, quintessential Ernie Pyle GIs, were trucked into the backcountry over the rough fire roads that were beginning to lace all the national forests, carved into the mountainsides by ex-Seabees operating war-surplus D-8 bulldozers. What a bunch of guys!

The upshot: By the mid-1970s, courtesy of Smokey Bear and the publicists who helped keep the money rolling in from Congress to finance impressive new firefighting technologies, the number of forest fires was cut in half and the number of acres burned reduced to one-eighth of the wartime average.

There were two problems, and they were mortal ones. First, the cost of these activities began to escalate out of sight. In the 10-year period between 1965 and 1975, the pricetag for fire-suppression and "pre-suppression" activities increased tenfold. Moreover, during the greening-of-America 1960s and 1970s, an environmental sensibility had steadily gained currency that "natural" fires had their place, especially in wilderness areas, despite Smokey Bear's implied message that all fires were anathema.

At length (and at last), to save money and to mimic, in a sense, the role of natural fire in a forest, the Forest Service finally embarked on controlled and "prescribed" burning to reduce the risk of mass fires raging over millions of acres. By letting some naturally caused (lightning) fires burn and by setting others, resource managers could, the prevailing wisdom then had it, return the forests to a more mass-fire-resistant natural composition. Burned-over spots would mix with newly regenerating areas would mix with more mature (and flammable) stands of timber- as opposed to vast areas of older trees with great accumulations of deadfall and litter, leading to the kind of fire that throws firebrands a half-mile and can bake the earth to brick

But in large areas of the West, by the time that fire policy was being rethought, it was too late to make a change, or at least so it would seem.

Neither a return to a "let-burn" policy, which had been experimented with in the early days and which was reasserted beginning in the 1960s, nor the use of prescribed burns in areas with high levels of fuel accumulation could truly approximate the cleansing effects of pre-Columbian "natural" fires. The reason: The forests had been made decidedly post-Columbian by a century or more of rapacious logging and, especially in recent decades, by fire suppression, thanks in part to Smokey. As virtually everyone now understands, the combination changed the composition and therefore the vulnerability of many forested areas to devastating insect attack and drought.

"When the forty-niners poured over the Sierra Nevada into California," wrote Eldon G. Bowman in the August 1968 issue of American Forests, reflecting the new consciousness, "those that kept diaries spoke almost to a man of the wide-spaced columns of mature trees that grew on the lower western slope in gigantic magnificence. The ground was a grass parkland, in springtime carpeted with wildflowers. Deer and bears were abundant. Today much of the west slope is a doghair thicket of young pines, white fir, incense cedar, and mature brush--a direct function of overprotection from natural ground fires."

There is worse news, for now, 25 years later, the thickets have become a "forest of torches" in the phrase of Herbert E. McLean, another writer for this magazine.

And so, as a consequence of overprotection, together with too much cutting and too little rain (the higher 1992-93 precipitation levels notwithstanding), the forests in large areas of the West have, ironically, become more vulnerable to fire than ever in history. Given the accumulation of fuels in an aging forest of closely spaced, afflicted trees, the only way that a let-burn fire policy might presently be possible would be through a massive effort physically to clear the tinder and extra trees out of the doghair thickets. Absent such an effort--and possibly even with it--natural fires will always have to be monitored carefully, if not immediately extinguished, lest they become mass fires. Moreover, even prescribed burning may not be possible in many areas, due to the accumulation of fuel.

According to Stephen Pyne, "Wildland fire is not a precision instrument. It is not some kind of Bunsen Burner that can be turned on and off at will. Starting in the mid-1970s, most of America's disastrous wildland fires resulted from breakdowns in prescribed burning. At the other end of their shovels, firefighters found something that resembled a smoking existentialism."

Given Pyne's astonishing observation on the risks of prescribed burning, along with the recent warnings of experts from the Blue Mountains to Boise to Bozeman about the present-day dangers that "natural" fires hold for unnatural woodlands, it would appear that for the time being at least, or until the next round of glaciers, society will somehow have to cope with the incredibly flammable forest it has created in the West. However declassé Smokey Bear has become among the environmentally sophisticated, we apparently still need him--and all those firewatchers and smokejumpers, too. We're stuck with good ol' Smokey's fire-suppressing message, whether it is ecologically correct or not.