How a cub rescued from a New Mexico forest fire became the iconic Smokey the Bear

Park rangers rescued a cub who had become badly burned during a 1950 wildfire in New Mexico's Captain Mountains. He went on to become Smokey the Bear.

LINCOLN COUNTY, N.M. -- In the spring of 1950, a massive wildfire broke out in New Mexico's Capitan Mountains. The park rangers at Capitan founded a tiny black bear cub in the fire and saw that he was severely burned. They rescued him and named him Smokey Bear. 

"[Forest ranger] Ray Bell ended up taking care of him for a little while," Smokey Bear Historical Park Ranger Wendy Boss told FOX Weather.

When the news of Smokey Bear came out, he soon grew to be an icon for wildfire education. 

He became a familiar face on posters throughout the United States. The story of Smokey being rescued tugged at the heartstrings of many people and caused wildfire safety to become a hot topic in the news, and more people started to pay attention to this cause.

"When they first started out, they tried to use Bambi or some other Disney characters, but they didn't fit it," Boss said. "And since they found Smokey, Smokey became the number one living symbol and icon for us."

Smokey Bear’s character and posters taught people how to put out campfires, how to use matches and lighters properly, and more about preventing forest fires. His fame grew to the point where he had his own zip code because of the many gifts and letters he was receiving.

As Smokey became more famous, he was moved to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. He stayed there until 1976 when he passed away at 26 and close to 400 pounds. 

After his death, he was flown back to his birthplace. He is buried in Smokey Bear Historical Park in Capitan, New Mexico – named after his legacy, of course – which is the forest he was found in as a cub. Boss even explained that they had to bury Smokey at 3 a.m. when no one was around because many people tried to kidnap Smokey’s body.

Even after his death, Smokey Bear continues to be a wildfire prevention legend and has allowed millions of people to be educated on the severity of forest fires. The workers at Capitan hope to continue his legacy and keep spreading awareness on forest fire prevention for generations to come.

"If you're not outdoors, maybe you won't pick up one of those clues [about forest fires] if you don't see news where they actually mentioned it in a weather report," said Capitan District Forester Nick Smokovich. "The message is out there; it's just a matter of catching that next generation of people, of young people.