WESTPORT — It was all smiles at Sherwood Island Park as families and the Westport Fire Department gathered to celebrate the 75th birthday of Smokey Bear on Friday.
“This is the longest-running ad campaign in the United States,” Fire Chief Robert Yost said.
Smokey Bear is an American campaign and advertising icon created in 1944 to help educate the public about the dangers of human-caused wildfires, he said. Since then, Smokey Bear has been the center of several fire-safety campaigns across the country.
The celebration was put together by Friends of Sherwood Island, the Westport Fire Department and Park Supervisor Jim Beschle. Volunteers from Earthplace were also in attendance to learn about fire safety and meet the bear of the hour.
Liz-Ann Koos, president of Friends of Sherwood Island, said Smokey was a positive symbol for children.
“He’s helped to promote fire safety for kids in a friendly way,” she said.
However, Smokey’s friendly appearance wasn’t always so. According to Yost, during World War II the United States became worrisome of its forests being targeted by the Japanese military’s fire balloons.
To combat this, the country started a campaign to educate citizens, he said, but initially posters for the campaign were too scary. Images of Japanese soldiers and Hitler were used in the early stages of the campaign before the country decided to take a softer approach to raising awareness.
“They realized they needed to put a friendlier face on it, and they came up with Smokey Bear,” Yost said. “That was in 1944, and he’s been here ever since.”
Since then, Smokey’s image has evolved into the playful bear he is known as now. At one point, Smokey even had his own ZIP code for fans to send letters to.
As fire safety has continued to evolve since Smokey’s creation, Yost said it’s more important than ever people understand their impact on the environment. According to Yost, nine out of the 10 fires are caused by human error, and while there are natural fires human carelessness could lead to irreversible damage.
“Controlled fire can help the environment and landscape, but it’s the uncontrolled and the accidental stuff that can be bad,” he said. “That’s why Smokey is as important today to help prevent wildfires through raising awareness.”
The celebration ended with children singing “Happy Birthday” to Smokey and enjoying cake presented by the fire department.