STRASBURG – America’s longest-running public service personality turns 75 this year and the Shenandoah County Fair is throwing a party.
Smokey Bear, the iconic woodland friend reminding generations of children and adults that only they can prevent wildfires, turned 75 on Aug. 9. To celebrate, families flocking to the fair can take a hot air balloon ride in Smokey’s balloon above the fairgrounds.
Steve Buck, a retired member of the U.S. Forest Service, said the plans to bring Smokey’s balloon to the fair formed in 2017 on a trip to the national Boy Scouts of America jamboree.
In his course of volunteering for the Forest Service after retiring, Buck said he takes care of a 1957 truck, an original Forest Service vehicle. That truck, Buck said, brought him into contact with the people responsible for the Smokey Bear balloon.
In 2017, Buck said he got the Shenandoah County Fair on the balloon’s schedule. That calendar, he said, fills up fast.
During the fair, the 1957 tanker, the balloon and Smokey Bear will be on hand. The tethered balloon ride will take riders up 100 feet into the air and back down again, Buck said.
On Thursday, Charlie Pride will sing happy birthday to Smokey.
Smokey’s run-ins with musicians have not always been to his benefit. When Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote their 1952 song celebrating Smokey, his name was changed to fit the beat. Buck explained the “the” in Smokey’s name isn’t correct. He’s just Smokey Bear, Buck said.
Smokey Bear’s history, Buck said, is an interesting one that has its roots in World War II.
Born out of a 1942 scare that Japan was planning an attack on Santa Barabra, the U.S. Forest Service conceived a plan to launch a campaign warning Americans about the danger of forest fires. When Walt Disney’s Bambi released later that year, the Forest Service reached out to Disney to ask for permission to use the characters in their campaign.
“They agreed,” Buck said. “But only agreed for a very short period of time. So they decided to come up with another figure so they came up with Smokey Bear. That was on Aug. 9, 1944.”
Six years later, Buck said, a fire in Capitan National Forest in New Mexico gave the Forest Service a real-life iteration of Smokey Bear.
“That’s when firefighters found a small bear cub up in a tree,” Buck said. “Its paws and legs were burnt so they saved the little guy and got him all fixed up and they named him Smokey.”
National interest in the bear getting saved pushed the New Mexico Fish and Wildlife Service to send Smokey to the U.S. Forest Service, Buck said, where he stayed at the National Zoo.
In the early 2000s, Buck said, Smokey Bear changed his tagline to encompass wildfires generally rather than forest fires specifically.
Fires, Buck explained, are an important piece of keeping forests healthy but keeping children and adults mindful of what they are doing is just as important to keeping forests alive.
Nine out of 10 forest fires are human-caused, Buck said, hammering home the fact that the forests are resources that will be lost if they aren’t taken care of was important.
“If you’re gonna burn a bunch of debris and brush at your house and you’re too close to the woods, you have a serious chance of starting a serious fire,” Buck said. “Between hurting the timber, hurting the wildlife and maybe, possibly hurting your neighbor, it’s something that is in your face and that people have to understand.”