It’s been 75 years since a bear cub was found with burned paws and hind legs after a New Mexico wildfire. He had taken refuge in a tree that became charred in the flames. A rancher among the crew of firefighters agreed to take him home, and a ranger with the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game helped get the cub to a place to Santa Fe, where his burns were treated and bandaged.
That bear cub became the iconic Smokey Bear, spreading the message across the country that, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” He lived out his life at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he received so many letters and gifts of honey, he had to have his own zip code, according to the Smokey Bear website.
This year, the Florida Forest Service is celebrating his birthday with a massive scavenger hunt across Southwest Florida. More than 70 items are hidden in more than 35 locations.
“It’s just a way to get people to get up, get out, and enjoy nature,” said Patrick Mahoney, spokesperson for the Myakka River District of the Florida Forest Service. “I release a batch of locations about once a week, letting people know, ‘Hey, here’s the new locations on different properties.’ We’ll leave some of the ones that haven’t been found yet. It’s all social media based.”
The top three people who find the most items will be presented with prizes at Smokey Bear’s Birthday Bash before the Charlotte Stone Crabs game on Aug. 3. Prizes include passes to TreeUmph in Bradenton, passes to Babcock Eco-Tour in Babcock Ranch, tickets for the Charlotte Stone Crabs and the Bradenton Marauders, year passes to any state forest in Florida, day passes to any state park in Florida, and passes for Big Cat Habitat and Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota.
The birthday bash will be from 2 to 5 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Charlotte Sports Park. There will be live music, birthday cake, photo opportunities with Smokey, display tables from several agencies, and free giveaways. Smokey will be throwing the first pitch of the game.
Mahoney said Smokey Bear has been the longest-running public service announcement out there as a story that “really tugged at people’s hearts.”
“I think the story about Smokey Bear really touched people at the time,” Mahoney said. “The bear cub found in the woods with his paws burned — the Ad Council was able to take it and put that bear with the ‘Only you’ message. I think it really tugged at people’s hearts and became such an icon with the commercials and songs.”
The Florida Forest Service has doubled its events and activities this year, taking advantage of the 75th birthday, and Mahoney said he thinks it has made a big difference. Fires this year are down in Charlotte and Sarasota counties compared to last year.