Smokey Bear has learned a 2nd language

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Solo tu puedes prevenir los incendios forestales."

Who says you can't teach an old bear new tricks?

At Smokey Bear's 65th birthday party today in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Forest Service will reveal that its iconic fire prevention symbol is bilingual, as it releases the new Smokey Bear Story "big book," an illustrated educational book in English and Spanish that officials hope will introduce his messages to a new generation of children.

The bruin's trademark message, "Only you can prevent forest fires," and lately, "wildfires," is one of the longest-running public service announcement campaigns in U.S. history.

"Smokey Bear is one of the most beloved symbols in American history, and his important message has been communicated to generations of Americans during the past 65 years," U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said. "This new book will help mentor a new generation in carrying on Smokey's message."

Smokey Bear -- often erroneously referred to as Smokey the Bear -- took over as the Forest Service's mascot from Bambi, who was on loan from Walt Disney for a year after the 1942 release of the animated feature film that bore his name.

Smokey's debut was on a poster released Aug. 9, 1944. It shows him wearing jeans and the wide-brimmed forestry hat he made famous and pouring a bucket of water on a smoldering campfire. The poster's message reads, "Smokey says -- Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires."

Although many people believe that lightning starts most wildfires, in fact, nine out of 10 wildfires nationwide are started by humans. The principal causes are campfires left unattended; trash burning on windy days; careless discarding of smoking materials and barbecue coals; and operating equipment without spark arrestors.

In a 1948 poster, Smokey is shown holding a shovel and surrounded by forest animals. The message is sharper: "Another 30 million acres will burn this year -- unless you are careful! Remember -- only you can prevent forest fires."

Shortly before Smokey's 60th birthday, his message morphed into "Only you can prevent wildfires" to better reflect the fire threats to a wide range of public lands, said Helene Cleveland, manager of the bear's birthday bash for the Forest Service.

"We wanted to let people know that there are also fire threats to prairies in Texas and Oklahoma and to grasslands and rangelands," Ms. Cleveland said. "We want to educate people that it's more than forests that are at risk."

According to the Forest Service, that message has helped to reduce the number of acres lost annually to forest fires, or wildfires, from about 22 million in 1944 to an average of 6.5 million acres annually. Still, wildfire prevention remains a critical issue for the Forest Service, especially in the West where national forests are overloaded with dead and dying trees.

Ms. Cleveland said Smokey, actually a Forest Service worker in a hairy brown bear suit, has been cutting a wide promotional swath in the run up to his birthday. On Friday, he appeared on NBC's "Today Show." He will have a prominent role at the party, she said, but fellow Forest Service mascot Woodsy Owl ("Give a hoot. Don't pollute!"), the Bureau of Land Management's 1970s mascot Johnny Horizon; and comic strip conservationist Mark Trail, who has often championed Smokey's conservation causes, will not attend.


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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