Smokey Bear gone but not forgotten

A cutout sign has been missing for six months.


Smokey Bear could return to Deception Pass someday, but the iconic anti-wildfire crusader might be shackled or otherwise tied down.

For generations, a cutout sign of the famous black bear standing alongside a Department of Natural Resources “fire danger rating” sign reminded people crossing Deception Pass Bridge from the Whidbey side that “only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

Mysteriously, the shovel-wielding, hat-wearing, topless firebrand had a habit of disappearing — apparently bear-napped — despite the fact that he’s federally protected under the Smokey Bear Act of 1952 and an average of 20,000 cars cross the bridge each day.

It’s unclear how many times the cutout has gone missing, although a motorist felt it necessary to call 911 and report Smokey’s disappearance from his post in 2016, according to a Whidbey News-Times Island Scanner entry from that year.

Smokey was replaced, but the Department of Natural Resources reports that he disappeared again at some point in 2018 or 2019. He was replaced by the DNR engine crew.

Now the DNR reports that Smokey hasn’t been seen in the last six months or so.

“Smokey has disappeared again and I don’t think he’s in hibernation for the winter,” wrote David Way, fire operations district manager for the Northwest region.

Way reported that the Northwest Region doesn’t have any spare Smokey Bears on hand. He’s looking into a spring sign order and hopes to replace the anthropomorphic bear later this year, but this time with a secure fastening mechanism.

Way pointed out that Smokey isn’t cheap and he’s not pleased with people stealing the signs.

A “2D Smokey Bear, one-side display kit” costs about $1,600, including the post and security lock.

“I don’t find much humor in wasting valuable state resources on replacing signs that are vandalized,” he said in an email.

Although Smokey may not have been treated well on Whidbey, his history is pretty amazing.

For the record, he’s Smokey Bear, without “the” in the middle.

Smokey has been warning people about the dangers of forest fires and wildfires since the war years, but a real-life baby bear dubbed “Smokey” captured the nation’s attention in 1950, according to the Smokey Bear website. The bear cub, injured in a New Mexico wildfire, was sent to live in the Washington D.C. zoo. Admirers mailed him so much honey and so many letters that he has his own zip code.

Although he died in 1976, people can still send letters to Smokey Bear, Washington, D.C., 20252. He also has a Twitter account.

The Smokey Bear Wildlife Prevention campaign, launched in 1944, long before the real Smokey was found, is the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history. Its message has become more relevant over the years as the world has warmed, western states have become drier and wildfires became so gigantic that millions of people are regularly advised to remain indoors to avoid smokey air.

It’s enough to make a conscientious bear take a breather, so to speak.

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