One dude who just turned 65 is still so hot, he’s smoking. Too bad he’s just a cartoon.

Smokey rocks/Ryn Gargulinski

Smokey rocks/Ryn Gargulinski

But he’s a cartoon with a big campaign, bigger shoulders and the very big message that “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Well, you and Mother Nature.

In any event, Smokey the Bear celebrates his birthday this week, perhaps with a cake sporting battery-operated candles, and he doesn’t appear ready to retire anytime soon.

Forest fires, or in the case of southern Arizona, dry brush desert area fires, have already eaten up more than 4.18 million acres of America this year alone, thanks to careless campers, severe storms and that stuff called lightning.

This week alone, more than 30 large wildfires were raging across the nation, according to Smokey’s online Real Time Wildfire Map, with four and one-half of them in Arizona. The one-half was partly in New Mexico. One of the most visible has been blazing in the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps our area’s mot notable was the Aspen fire that wiped out most of Summerhaven in June 2003.

Smokey must have had the day off.

But his efforts have earned him the distinction of being part of the longest running public service announcement in U.S. history and one of the most recognizable icons of our time.

A whopping 97 percent of adults recognize Smokey’s image at the drop of a ranger hat, according to an Ad Council survey, and three out of four folks can recite his sizzling wildfire mantra without looking at a cue card.

Because Smokey is one of the hottest spokespersons to hit the market, we have to ask why he has been so successful.

Illustration Ryn Gargulinski

Illustration Ryn Gargulinski

Few other cartoon spokespeople have achieved such heights, although we do have the pleasure of McGruff the Crime Dog and his little sidekick Scruff, neither of whom can hold a candle to Smokey.

Smokey has staying power for a number of reasons. One is his sob story of origin. The icon had a real live counterpart when folks found a baby bear cub cowering in a charred tree after a New Mexico wildfire.

The cub was rescued, tended to, healed up and dubbed “Little Smokey.” His new home became Washington D.C.’s National Zoo.

You can’t help but love any icon with a beginning that sweet.

Another reason Smokey is effective is because of his delivery. He doesn’t hit folks on the head with a shovel to instill his message. He uses the age-old method proven to work almost every time on almost everybody: guilt.

One of Smokey’s 1940s-era posters features a disappointed-looking bear sadly pouring a bucket of water on an unattended campfire.

Another depicts dear Smokey actually kneeling down in prayer with the words, “And please make people careful, amen.”

A 1950s poster shows Smokey cradling the near dead body of a doe while a fire rages in the background with the words, “Our Most Shameful Waste.”

OK, OK, I promise to put out my campfire.

Smokey’s final claim to fame is the fact that he’s so dang personable. He may be big, burly and potentially deadly, but he caters to our compassionate side.

Illustration Ryn Gargulinski

Illustration Ryn Gargulinski

He got his start because of the massive news coverage following the discovery of the charred-up New Mexico bear and has been in the limelight since.

Smokey has been featured in Ladies Home Journal, the star of entire comic books and is a regular on countless posters, radio and TV, not to mention the thousands of schools and other venues he’s visited over the years.

That’s quite a campaign. But then, he’s quite a bear.

Happy birthday, Smokey.

Ryn Gargulinski is a poet, artist, performer and TucsonCitizen.com Ryngmaster who never started a fire or killed a gerbil on purpose.  Listen to a preview of her column at 8:10 a.m. Thursdays on KLPX 96.1 FM. Her column appears every Friday on Rynski’s Blogski. E-mail rynski@tucsoncitizen.com.

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Do you care about Smokey the Bear or are you more into Woodsy Owl?

Do cartoon icons deter you from acting stupid?

In addition to Smokey, Woodsy and McGruff, what other icons do we need?


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