Smokey Bear was named after "Smoky" Joe Martin, a legendary hero of the New York City Fire Department.
The U.S. government had no choice but to tie forest fires to national security after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. It was feared that an enemy attack or sabotage on the U.S. mainland could destroy our forest resources at a time when wood products were greatly needed for building battleships, gunstocks, and packing crates for the war. Preventing forest fires had become a top priority, especially after most American firefighters had shipped out to join the war effort overseas.
In order to raise the profile of the anti-forest fire campaign, Walt Disney agreed to temporarily loan the government the use of his hugely popular animated film character Bambi. Because Bambi’s image was only on loan to the government for one year, on August 2, 1944, the Forest Service and the War Advertising Council introduced a bear as their new campaign mascot.
The bear was named "Smokey" after "Smoky" Joe Martin, a legendary hero of the New York City Fire Department. Smoky Joe grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in an apartment behind a firehouse. He joined the fire department in 1884, at age 22, rising through the ranks to become the department’s second in command. Truly one of New York’s bravest, Smoky Joe saved countless lives at great personal risk and had to be rushed away by ambulance from fires he was helping fight nearly two dozen times during his 47 years with the fire department.
Smokey Bear’s first anti-forest fire poster was released on August 9, 1944. Smokey is wearing jeans and hat, and is seen extinguishing a campfire. The poster reads, "Smokey says – Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!"
Seventy years later, Smokey’s anti-fire message remains well-known. Smokey Bear is recognized by over 90% of American adults, a testament to the incredible success of the bear named for a heroic New York City fireman.