On his 75th birthday Friday, Smokey Bear admitted that his decades of fame had caused him to lose touch with the struggles of everyday firefighting bears.
“I originally got into this line of work because taking care of forests was what I loved,” said Smokey. “But the TV deals, the endorsements, and the glamour all got to my head. I became blind to the fact that there were still brave bears out there in the line of duty fighting fires every day.”
The renowned smokejumper initially joined the U.S. Forest Service toward the end of World War II after serving with distinction in the Marine Corps, being twice wounded on Guadalcanal. After he led heroic rescues during the 1948 Mann Gulch Fire and the 1961 Bel Air Fire, Smokey became a household name.
According to Smokey’s biographer, his sudden fame was accompanied by a lavish lifestyle of booze, loose women, and drugs.
“1963 was really the turning point for Smokey Bear. Once he started getting movie deals and sleeping with starlets like Elizabeth Taylor, his stardom got to his head,” said Nicholas Barnes. “By the 1980s, his cocaine addiction had become so self-destructive that he had to sell off thousands of acres of Yellowstone National Park to lumber companies just to avoid bankruptcy.”
For Smokey Bear, it has been a long hard road to recovery. When lifelong friend and Forest Service geologist Woodsy Owl was killed during a New Mexico fire in 1992, Smokey says he was so strung out on dope that he didn’t even make the funeral.
Now, however, he says he is finally starting to regain sight of what drew him to the profession in the first place: the brotherhood of bears and other forest critters who risk their lives everyday to fight fires.
“You know how long a bear lasted when dropped into a hot LZ at the Siege Fires of 1987? Two minutes. There’s bears out there fighting and dying everyday to save the forests they love,” Smokey said. “Those guys are my heroes.”
Violet Hart contributed reporting.