The U.S. Forest Service, Mammoth District, took down the Smokey the Bear sign on Route 395 this week, as it does every fall. But this particular billboard is retiring to the wall of the Engine Bay at the Forest Service and will be replaced by a redesigned Smokey the Bear next spring.
The new, 12 foot tall image is already completed, created by local artist Dana Ellis.
“It’s old and took a beating from the weather— it was buckling due to the sun the wind and the rain,” said Isabelle Kusumoto, Interagency Fire Prevention Officer at the Mammoth District. She said the billboard is a lot of upkeep on an annual basis, as the sun and wind deteriorate it every summer. During the winter, the billboard was sanded, the paint retouched, and then resealed with Verathane before going back up before Memorial Day. Still, the sign needed to be replaced after 10 years.
This is the fifth Smokey the Bear billboard out at Smokey Bear Flat (named after the iconic bear)—the first was installed in the 1950s and painted by Dick Dahlgren.
Smokey has been acting as an American symbol of fire prevention since 1944 and is the longest running public service advertisement in U.S. history. According the U.S. Forest Service, Smokey the Bear guidelines, the Smokey advertising campaign, began in the early 1940s with the help of the Wartime Advertising Council during WWII, after a Japanese Submarine started a small fire near Santa Barbara, close to the Los Padres National Forest.
The idea was to engage the public in fire prevention as part of the war effort. The first campaign used the cartoon Bambi, on loan from Walt Disney Studios, proving that a forest animal was an effective marketing tool. So the Forest Service hired artist Albert Staehle, who created the national icon of Smokey the Bear.
In 1952, Congress passed the Smokey Bear Act to protect the bear’s image, requiring uniform standards and a positive attitude in any depiction of Smokey.
The campaign has proved successful, seeing as during the 1930s the annual average number of wildfires was 167,277, and in 2008 it was 65,000.
Ellis wanted to bring Smokey “up to date” with the redesign. “He was just a bit round before. He’s outside all day working as a ranger, so I gave him a hint of a bicep and trimmed up his waste,” she said.
Kusomoto said her office decided to add Smokey’s tagline, “only you can prevent wildfires,” on the new sign because “We’re not sure everyone really knows the message of Smokey,” she said.
This summer there were 11 human-caused wildfires, eight of which were from campfires, “So it seems fitting to emphasize the Smokey Bear message again,” she said. They had hoped to install the sign in time for the bear’s 70th birthday on August 9, but it will have to wait until next spring.
“I’m pretty happy with it. It’s pretty similar to the traditional Smokey,” Ellis said about the new Smokey. The sign took her all summer to paint. Ellis promotes art in the local community and is part of several local groups, including the Beasties Art Show.