The Stories Behind 6 Vintage Forest Fire Prevention Characters

Wendy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Wendy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0 / Wendy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

You’re no doubt familiar with Smokey Bear, the anthropomorphic bear who proclaimed, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” but did you know there used to be an entire menagerie meant to help prevent major fires in the United States? From the Fire Wolf to the Guberif, each of these characters were used in campaigns to create awareness for fire safety in American woodlands during and after World War II.


Wikimedia Commons

Smokey Bear is easily the most famous fire prevention mascot, and he has been featured in the longest running PSA campaign in American history. Since August 1944, Smokey has appeared on posters, in TV commercials, and on road signs prompting citizens to conserve and protect forests.

Smokey was created during World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor. A number of the men who subsequently joined the American armed forces were firefighters, and their absence left the forests largely unprotected. The Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and War Advertising Council worked together to organize the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program, which launched a campaign to promote forest fire prevention. They realized the impact of animal messengers early on when a promotional poster featuring Bambi in 1944 garnered the public’s attention (remember Bambi and his woodland friends fleeing a large, scary wildfire near the end of the film?). But the Bambi image was on loan from Disney, so they needed to come up with something new that they could own. Smokey Bear was soon introduced by illustrator Albert Staehle as a campaign symbol aimed toward both children and adults. By 1946, Forest Service artist Rudy Wendelin tweaked the bear’s original design to create the artwork we’re familiar with today.

U.S Department of Agriculture. CC BY 2.0

There was also a real bear named Smokey Bear, but he was named after the cartoon, not vice versa. In 1950, a burned bear cub survived a fire in Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico and was named after the popular fire prevention figure. The orphaned cub was rescued from charred tree, and his paws and hind legs were bandaged by veterinarians in Santa Fe. News outlets picked up the story of the injured baby bear, and people all over the country called to check in on the cub. Eventually he was donated to Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo, where he continued to promote fire safety until his death in 1976.

And as for the confusion between the name Smokey Bear and Smokey the Bear, songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins are to blame. After Congress took Smokey Bear out of public domain in 1952, Nelson and Rollins penned a theme song wherein they added the infamous ‘the’ to keep the rhythm.

The Smokey Bear campaign has stood the test of time. In 1964, the US Postal Service issued the fictitious bear his own zip code (20252) as he was receiving nearly a thousand letters per day. He also has a commemorative stamp and his own Smokey Bear Historical Park. (In 2008 he was even given a new motto—”Get Your Smokey On”—but the official Smokey Bear site has since reverted to the original slogan.)


An ad from 1946. Forest History Society via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A surprisingly popular character, Woody was simply a talking log of wood (somewhat reminiscent of Ren & Stimpy’s Log, but with language capability). Back in 1941, faced with the threat of federal regulation and increasing criticism, the American Forest Products Industry (AFPI) decided to form a public relations program. They started running ads the following year that spoke to the benefits of forest products and protecting natural resources.

By 1944, the character Woody was created for an advertising campaign and was used to symbolize proper forest management and forest products; additionally, his image was sometimes used to drum up support for the war effort. After the war, Woody evolved primarily into an advocate of forest fire prevention and, like the Guberif (see below), became a symbol for the national Keep America Green Movement. Not only did Woody appear on promotional items and road signs, but in the 1950s, he was featured in comic books and on greeting cards. Woody also made public appearances, but he was eventually overshadowed by Smokey Bear and gradually disappeared from use.


An ad from 1945. Forest History Society via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

An antagonistic figure, the Fire Wolf also came into being at the end of World War II when patriotic concerns about forest fires began to give way to economic concerns. With the timber supply being threatened by fires, forest industry groups opted to try to educate people about fire prevention. One of the AFPI's 1945 advertising campaigns featured a character called the Fire Wolf. Debuting the year after Woody, the Fire Wolf was named "Forest Enemy No.1," and it’s easy to see why. His body was made out of flames, and he made a habit of befriending campers who refused to put out their fires and smokers who were careless with their still-lit cigarettes. Ads featuring the Fire Wolf stalking innocent woodland creatures appeared throughout the U.S. and in Canada, thanks to the Shawinigan Industries of Canada, but the campaign was short-lived. The Fire Wolf only appeared in print ads, and unlike Smokey Bear and Woody, he never gained much traction with the public.


Circa 1965. Forest History Society via Flickr //CC BY-NC 2.0

In 1940, Washington state created the first statewide forest fire prevention organization of its kind with the Keep Washington Green Association. By 1949, 24 states had Keep Green programs, and by the 1960s, Keep California Green decided they should have their own mascot. Announced in the 1965 Keep California Green newsletter Keep Greener, cartoon logger Cal Green briefly served as a symbol of the California timber industry as well as a regional figure for fire prevention in what was a growing national movement. Cal’s image showed up on signs and mailings around the state, but the character never managed to catch on, perhaps because Smokey Bear already had such a strong foothold as the national symbol of fire prevention.


Postcard from 1951. Forest History Society via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A Guberif—"firebug" backwards—was a kind of grotesque insect created by the Keep Idaho Green campaign in the mid-'40s. The character, meant to differentiate Idaho’s fire prevention campaign from those of other states, was said to start forest fires due to reckless behavior. The creature was more popular during its time than you might expect, considering it was a giant bug. In 1951, the Guberif was featured on over 100,000 postcards and 300 road signs in Idaho, some of which can still be seen today, and live Guberifs even showed up at some events.


Circa 1946. Forest History Society via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Noted cartoonist Ed Nofziger, who drew characters such as Mister Magoo as well as working for companies like Hanna-Barbera and magazines like The New Yorker, also created the character Joe Beaver. As a pacifist and member of the Church of the Brethren, Nofziger was assigned to the Forest Service as an alternative to active duty during World War II. Joe Beaver first appeared in a publication for the Otsego Forest Cooperator in Cooperstown, N.Y., where Nofziger was stationed. Local popularity led the Forest Service to take the cartoon national, and Joe Beaver soon appeared in trade journals and other publications across the United States. The cartoon was even featured in the 1945 overseas edition of Life magazine.

Save for his ability to speak, Joe Beaver was otherwise a normal animal. He didn’t wear clothes, he lived in a forest, and he built dams like any of his real counterparts. Nofziger never made any money off of his creation, as it was officially owned by the Forest Service, but he had no complaints. "He does not contribute to my family income," Nofzinger once said. "He is a public service. He is given away free." Nofziger continued to put out Joe Beaver cartoons until the end of the 1940s, when the mascot was no longer used by the Forest Service.