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True Story of Smokey Bear

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Capitan, New Mexico is the birthplace and burial site of Smokey Bear. On May 4, 1950, a carelessly discarded cigarette started the Los Tablos blaze in  the Lincoln National Forest. On May 6, a second fire, known as the  Capitan Gap fire started in the same general area. Together these fires  destroyed 17,000 acres of forest and grasslands. The monetary loss to  private property was great but the loss to the environment was even  greater.

In  May 8, a 70 mile per hour wind made it impossible to control the blaze.  It was on this day that nineteen men were trapped in a rock slide while  the raging holocaust, incredibly, spared them. They were rescued  without any fatalities, but later expressed the opinion that they knew  "just how a slice of toast feels."


 On May 9, a fire crew brought a badly singed bear cub into the fire  camp. They had found the frightened cub clinging tenaciously to the side  of a burnt pine tree. Badly burned about the buttocks and feet, he was  given the name "Hotfoot", a description soon to be changed to Smokey  Bear. His burns were tended to overnight at the nearby Flatley Ranch,  then flown by Game Warden Ray Bell to the veterinary hospital in Santa  Fe. Bell later kept Smokey in his home, where, it is said, he was a  "mite domineering" with the other family pets and somewhat of a ham.

In  1944, prior to the discovery of Smokey Bear, the Forest Service and the  Advertising Council originated and authorized the use of a poster by  artist Albert Staehle, depicting a bear called Smokey. A later depiction  by Rudolph Wendelin is still used in fire prevention campaigns. The  popularity of the campaign grew so great, after the inclusion of Smokey,  that in 1952 Congress passed a bill into law governing the  commercialization of the name and image of Smokey Bear. Due to the vast  amount of mail he was receiving, Smokey was given his own zip code. Upon  Smokey's recovery in Santa Fe, the Forest Service had Smokey flown to  Washington D.C.


 It is rumored that on this flight, an airport refused the pilot's  request to land because a bear was aboard the plane! In July of 1950,  the U.S. Senator Chaves of New Mexico, presented Smokey to the school  children of America. Smokey was now in his permanent home at the  National Zoo where millions visited and marveled at his story.

New  Mexico adopted the black bear as the state animal in 1962, and, on its  golden anniversary in 1962, a female bear companion named Goldie from  Magdalena, New Mexico was sent to the Washington Zoo. No cubs were ever  born to Smokey and his mate.


 Upon his death in 1976, at the urging of his many friends, Smokey's body  was returned to his beautiful and beloved Capitan Mountains. He now  rests in peace, buried in a small park which bears his name; in the  heart of the Village of Capitan and in the shadow of the mountains where  it all began. In 1984, Rudolph Wendelin designed a 20 cent postage  stamp depicting a bear cub clinging to a burnt tree with the famous  Smokey Bear emblem as a background. This was the first and only time the  U.S. Postal Service has issued a postage stamp honoring an individual  animal. Capitan was chosen for the first day sale of this commemorative  stamp fifty years after the inception of Wendelin's poster.


 Smokey Bear, the Lincoln National Forest, the beautiful and rugged  Capitan Mountains, are all part of the saga of dedicated and caring  people who were brought together by a miracle of nature... all a part of  the history of Capitan.


Thanks to Frank E. Miller and Dorothy Guck for providing information for this epic story. Photos courtesy of the Smokey Bear Museum. Aftermath of Capitan Gap Fire, Hopalong Cassidy and Smokey, Homer Pickens & Smokey

Judy Bell and Smokey. Game Warden Ray Bell & Smokey