New Mexico February 11, 2020
Few People Know That New Mexico Is The Birthplace Of Smokey Bear, The Wildfire Prevention Symbol
Did you know one of America’s most famous bears can trace part of his heritage to New Mexico? For one tiny bear cub, a real-life tragedy in Lincoln National Forest gave meaning to reduce wildfires.
Smokey Bear is easily one of the most recognizable figures in American culture.
For more than 75 years, he's been the face of wildfire prevention and this spring marks the 70th birthday of his real-life counterpart.
In May 1950, a human-caused forest fire erupted in the Capitan Mountains in southeastern New Mexico, burning 17,000 acres.
While firefighters fought to contain the blaze, they spotted a little bear cub attempting to avoid the fire. They didn't have the opportunity to do much though; within a short time period, the fire line jumped, causing the firefighters to seek emergency shelter on a rockslide.
Once the fire finished burning past them, they spotted that same little cub clinging to a burnt tree in an attempt to escape the fire.
Singed, alone and scared, the cub was also very likely orphaned due to the fire. Workers tenderly pried him from the charred tree and tenderly removed him from the tree.
The cub was taken in to have burns on his paws and legs treated and he was originally named Hotfoot Teddy.
However, news quickly spread about the bear and his tragic circumstances
— namely that he was likely orphaned due to a human-caused forest fire — and he was later renamed Smokey and gained national attention.
During this time, Smokey had already been a successful icon for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildfire prevention symbol.
His first ad was featured in 1944 and his motto, “only you can prevent forest fires,” instantly became recognizable. That little bear cub gave new meaning to that catchphrase.
While the advertising image of the bear was already well-known, the living symbol of Smokey became an instant hit.
Smokey ended up living at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. for more than two decades, where he was one of the zoo's most popular residents.
He died in 1976 and his remains were returned to a garden in his birthplace, Lincoln National Forest.
Today, you can visit Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, the same area where he was originally found.
Here, you'll find a museum dedicated to both the real-life and fictional Smokeys, with memorabilia, decades-old advertisements, and a story of the bears' origins. You can also visit Smokey's grave and pay respects to the living symbol.
Have you had a chance to stop by the historical park or even meet Smokey?
By modern standards, the Capitan Gap fire that orphaned Smokey was small. Read about the state’s most devastating wildfires in
4 Devastating New Mexico Wildfires That Have Gone Down In History.
Address: Capitan, NM 88316, USA