He is the second most recognizable icon in the United States, topped only by Santa Claus according to a Payson Ranger District handout. Well-loved since the 1950s, he is Smokey Bear.
But don't call the bear who has his own trailer in Payson "Smokey THE Bear." His historically accurate name is Smokey Bear.
Smokey Bear was a 5-pound bear cub saved from death by wildfire near the Capitan Mountains of the Lincoln Forest in New Mexico on May 4, 1950.
Firefighters found the burned little cub clinging terrified to a tree.
Americans fell in love with him and the next month he was flown to Washington D.C. to become our nation's living symbol of wildfire prevention and wildlife conservation.
Out of 100 fires 90 percent are attributed to human carelessness, but with Smokey Bear on the trail in the year of his birth the incidence of forest fires decreased by 20,000. Smokey Bear's reminder to everyone: The forest you protect and save is your own.
The walls in Smokey Bear's Payson home are set up with changeable display boards.
District Fire Prevention Officer Gary Roberts can change the messages; gearing his presentation toward the group he is trying to educate. Among other things, elementary school age children are taught not to play with fire. Groups of campers learn proper camp fire building and even more important, the proper way to douse a campfire. The focus for homeowners is the creation of a defensible perimeter around the home, how to keep the property fire wise, and the location of brush dump pits. Forest health management is taught to special event audiences.
"Personally, I think that the most pressing need facing our public lands is education. We need to understand what a healthy forest is. That applies to all levels from elementary school children to politicians at high levels of government," said Roberts.
According to Roberts, because baby boomers grew up with forests that were already unhealthy they believed that thicker was better.
A few years ago Roberts saw a need for a some kind of traveling educational program in the local fire fighting district.
"The idea is to have a mobile teaching unit to take to fairs, rodeos, campgrounds and schools so we are ready to teach immediately." Roberts said.
The project is 97 percent complete and was created with internal help from fire fighters in the Payson Ranger District. Some put in cabinets while others installed lights.
Even though Smokey Bear died in 1976, his legacy lives on. His Junior Forest Ranger Program had six million children sign up. He still receives an avalanche of fan mail. In fact, in 1964 he was issued his own ZIP code. You can write to him at Smokey Bear, Washington D C, 20252 or catch up with him online at www.smokeybear.com.
Further resources for fire education:
Payson Ranger District 1009 E. Highway 260, Payson, AZ 85541, (928) 477-7900
Ways to reduce wildfire risk
Homeowners, you can reduce your risk of wildfire in just one weekend:
1. Keep your roof clean.
2. Rate your roof -- consider treatment to make it more resistant to fire.
3. Defensible space -- create a buffer zone where vegetation has been removed or modified. On level ground the zone should extend 30 feet from structures. Many additional feet are necessary as the slope of the land increases.
4. Remove flammable brush, trees and vegetation from around your home -- replace with low resin, high moisture counterparts.
5. Prune or remove trees.
6. Cut grass and weeds on a regular basis.
7. Recycle or compost branches and yard debris.
8. Relocate building materials, wood piles and other flammable materials -- 30 feet away from any structures.
9. Keep your chimney clean.
10. Designate an emergency meeting place where your family can meet outside if a fire occurs.
11. Use signage and create access.
12. Develop an emergency water supply.
13. Have tools for fire fighting handy -- shovel, rake, bucket, 100 feet of
preconnected garden hose, ladder that reaches your roof.
14. Seek safe storage for gasoline and solvents.