Go ahead and pick your favorite superhero. Superman or Spiderman, Batman? How about Captain Marvel, Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, or The Shadow? Choose a Superhero who can leap from buildings in a single bound. A superhero who can vaporize all threats and can pull off that grandest of all fashion statements, the cape! A big, swirling cape.
My nephew always wore a cape as a child, and now his son is following in the rich tradition of wrapping a cape around his shoulders and being safe and brave. He has a new brother coming in just a few days, and I hope he will pass on the magic and allure of the cape.
Although I understand all the smoke and mirrors and swirling capes, I dare say (with a sniff) my personal hero is Smokey the Bear. I salute you Smokey! Protector of the forests! I salute you!
Smokey is celebrating his 75th anniversary this year. He has been duly credited with raising awareness of the dangers of forest fires, thereby keeping bears and all manner of wildlife safer for the past 75 years. No small task, that. Things have gotten tougher for Smokey - given the climate change evident with the super fires in the west - however, our dear, caring Smokey pushes on.
“Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires!” he says in his rough, bruin-like way. “Be sure your campfire is out!” “Never leave a fire burning until the last ember is extinguished.” If he’s done one thing, it is that he’s put the blame where it should be - on us. The sign at the DNR on Hwy. 13 coming into Park Falls alerts us to what the fire danger is for the day: Low, Moderate, High, Very High, and Extreme.
My favorite of the many Smokey signs are: ‘Remember the Babes in the Woods,’ or more recently, “Rake them leaves!” A favorite, after President Trump stated that one of the reasons for the wildfires out west was because we don’t “rake them leaves” in the forests like we should. I am not sure our president has ever seen the 1.5 million acres of trees in the Chequamegon/Nicolet National Forest. Does our president mean like a garden rake, about a foot and a half wide? That kind of rake? Rake America Great Again?
I have always loved Smokey’s uniform. He doesn’t go in for showy. He’s just a simple guy with simple needs. One enormous pair of blue jeans, wide brown leather belt and no t-shirt. His hat has become a national symbol. My oldest son, Brian, a Wisconsin State Trooper, respects his Smokey the Bear Stetson as a symbol of his responsibility to law enforcement. The Trooper who flies above the Interstate to track speeders is called the “Bear in the Air.”
I speak of Smokey with great respect. He was found by firefighters along the fire line in a huge wildfire in New Mexico. There were 30 firefighters caught in the fire’s path. They laid face down in a rocky area for over an hour and were then able to escape. Smokey wasn’t so lucky. Separated from his mother, he climbed a tree which later began to burn and Smokey’s back legs and paws were badly burned.
He was rescued and recovered from the burns and went on to become a national symbol.
His back legs were charred, and yet he pulled through - and I often wonder why his posters show him without boots. I have often thought his feet would be pretty sensitive. His jeans are rolled up and he is always shown walking through the forest with a healthy stride. I checked out the Smokey who rode proudly in the Flambeau Rama parade, and I think he was wearing boots. He waved at me - I guess he recognized a fan when he saw one, eh?
After Smokey recovered from his burns, he was sent to live in the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington D.C., where he enjoyed the numerous gifts of honey sent to him by his many followers. He also received so much mail that he had to have his own zip code. What a bear.
A second bear was chosen in 1975 and he became the nation’s Smokey until he died in 1990.
I do remember when he was “defunded” during the nation’s furlough, but I am not sure that was the reason the forest service decided not to name another Smokey. He remains a symbol of national protection of our forests. He was laid to rest in the Capitan Forest where he had been found so many years ago - clinging to the top of a tree.
What an amazing superhero eh?
So if you’re out camping or hiking in any forested area, remember his words so often repeated: “Only you can prevent forest fires!”