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Smokey the Bear celebrates 75 years at Discovery Center

Daily News Staff Writer

Friday marked 75 years of Smokey the Bear and his iconic reminder: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

In 1944, a bear cub was found burned and alone at the scene of an uncontrolled wildfire in New Mexico. The bear went on to become a symbol for fire safety, and was originally to be called “Hot Foot Teddy,” for the burns found on the bear's paws.  

The bear became the inspiration for the long-running fire prevention campaign of the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council. Aug. 9, celebrated as Smokey's birthday, was the day in 1944 that both organizations agreed he should become the symbol for the campaign.

“He is definitely well-known,” said Leslie Swada, the director of the U.S. Forest Service's Southeast Alaska Discovery Center.

Swada said that Smokey's worldwide recognition was second only to Santa Claus.

To celebrate his 75th birthday on Friday, the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center – and other similar organizations nationwide – threw a party for Smokey.

Open to the public, the celebration was complete with a birthday cake and rubber “Smokey's friend” bracelets as party favors for guests.

“We had a lovely ceremony, (and there was) singing Smokey the birthday song,” Swada said.

In between celebrating his birthday, staff from the U.S. Forest Service and the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center suited up in a Smokey costume.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with short breaks in between, Smokey waved and took pictures with passers-by outside the center, which had been decorated with balloons and banners for the occasion.

“There were a lot of photo ops today, not only inside, but outside, as well, to basically share the momentous day,” Swada said.

Swada believes that Smokey's career as an icon is due to the fact that “people can relate” to him.

“A lot of people relate to bears. Just in general, they feel a connection to wildlife,” Swada explained. “I think people are drawn to the story. It just captures your imagination and it's just very special.”

Friday's birthday event was not the first Smokey the Bear event hosted by the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center. In April, a collection of 19 original Smokey the Bear posters, painted by artist Rudolph Wendelin, was displayed at the center.