The Stories Behind 6 Vintage Forest Fire Prevention Characters

You’re no doubt familiar with Smokey Bear, the anthropomorphic bear who proclaimed, “Only you can prevent forest fires,” but did you know there used to be an entire menagerie meant to help prevent major fires in the United States? From the Fire Wolf to the Guberif, each of these characters were used in campaigns to create awareness for fire safety in American woodlands during and after World War II.


Smokey Bear is easily the most famous fire prevention mascot, and he has been featured in the longest running PSA campaign in American history. Since August 1944, Smokey has appeared on posters, in TV commercials, and on road signs prompting citizens to conserve and protect forests.

Smokey was created during World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor. A number of the men who subsequently joined the American armed forces were firefighters, and their absence left the forests largely unprotected. The Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and War Advertising Council worked together to organize the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program, which launched a campaign to promote forest fire prevention. They realized the impact of animal messengers early on when a promotional poster featuring Bambi in 1944 garnered the public’s attention (remember Bambi and his woodland friends fleeing a large, scary wildfire near the end of the film?). But the Bambi image was on loan from Disney, so they needed to come up with something new that they could own. Smokey Bear was soon introduced by illustrator Albert Staehle as a campaign symbol aimed toward both children and adults. By 1946, Forest Service artist Rudy Wendelin tweaked the bear’s original design to create the artwork we’re familiar with today.

There was also a real bear named Smokey Bear, but he was named after the cartoon, not vice versa. In 1950, a burned bear cub survived a fire in Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico and was named after the popular fire prevention figure. The orphaned cub was rescued from charred tree, and his paws and hind legs were bandaged by veterinarians in Santa Fe. News outlets picked up the story of the injured baby bear, and people all over the country called to check in on the cub. Eventually he was donated to Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo, where he continued to promote fire safety until his death in 1976.

And as for the confusion between the name Smokey Bear and Smokey the Bear, songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins are to blame. After Congress took Smokey Bear out of public domain in 1952, Nelson and Rollins penned a theme song wherein they added the infamous ‘the’ to keep the rhythm.

The Smokey Bear campaign has stood the test of time. In 1964, the US Postal Service issued the fictitious bear his own zip code (20252) as he was receiving nearly a thousand letters per day. He also has a commemorative stamp and his own Smokey Bear Historical Park. (In 2008 he was even given a new motto—”Get Your Smokey On”—but the official Smokey Bear site has since reverted to the original slogan.)


A surprisingly popular character, Woody was simply a talking log of wood (somewhat reminiscent of Ren & Stimpy’s Log, but with language capability). Back in 1941, faced with the threat of federal regulation and increasing criticism, the American Forest Products Industry (AFPI) decided to form a public relations program. They started running ads the following year that spoke to the benefits of forest products and protecting natural resources.

By 1944, the character Woody was created for an advertising campaign and was used to symbolize proper forest management and forest products; additionally, his image was sometimes used to drum up support for the war effort. After the war, Woody evolved primarily into an advocate of forest fire prevention and, like the Guberif (see below), became a symbol for the national Keep America Green Movement. Not only did Woody appear on promotional items and road signs, but in the 1950s, he was featured in comic books and on greeting cards. Woody also made public appearances, but he was eventually overshadowed by Smokey Bear and gradually disappeared from use.


An antagonistic figure, the Fire Wolf also came into being at the end of World War II when patriotic concerns about forest fires began to give way to economic concerns. With the timber supply being threatened by fires, forest industry groups opted to try to educate people about fire prevention. One of the AFPI's 1945 advertising campaigns featured a character called the Fire Wolf. Debuting the year after Woody, the Fire Wolf was named "Forest Enemy No.1," and it’s easy to see why. His body was made out of flames, and he made a habit of befriending campers who refused to put out their fires and smokers who were careless with their still-lit cigarettes. Ads featuring the Fire Wolf stalking innocent woodland creatures appeared throughout the U.S. and in Canada, thanks to the Shawinigan Industries of Canada, but the campaign was short-lived. The Fire Wolf only appeared in print ads, and unlike Smokey Bear and Woody, he never gained much traction with the public.


In 1940, Washington state created the first statewide forest fire prevention organization of its kind with the Keep Washington Green Association. By 1949, 24 states had Keep Green programs, and by the 1960s, Keep California Green decided they should have their own mascot. Announced in the 1965 Keep California Green newsletter Keep Greener, cartoon logger Cal Green briefly served as a symbol of the California timber industry as well as a regional figure for fire prevention in what was a growing national movement. Cal’s image showed up on signs and mailings around the state, but the character never managed to catch on, perhaps because Smokey Bear already had such a strong foothold as the national symbol of fire prevention.


A Guberif—"firebug" backwards—was a kind of grotesque insect created by the Keep Idaho Green campaign in the mid-'40s. The character, meant to differentiate Idaho’s fire prevention campaign from those of other states, was said to start forest fires due to reckless behavior. The creature was more popular during its time than you might expect, considering it was a giant bug. In 1951, the Guberif was featured on over 100,000 postcards and 300 road signs in Idaho, some of which can still be seen today, and live Guberifs even showed up at some events.


Noted cartoonist Ed Nofziger, who drew characters such as Mister Magoo as well as working for companies like Hanna-Barbera and magazines like The New Yorker, also created the character Joe Beaver. As a pacifist and member of the Church of the Brethren, Nofziger was assigned to the Forest Service as an alternative to active duty during World War II. Joe Beaver first appeared in a publication for the Otsego Forest Cooperator in Cooperstown, N.Y., where Nofziger was stationed. Local popularity led the Forest Service to take the cartoon national, and Joe Beaver soon appeared in trade journals and other publications across the United States. The cartoon was even featured in the 1945 overseas edition of Life magazine.

Save for his ability to speak, Joe Beaver was otherwise a normal animal. He didn’t wear clothes, he lived in a forest, and he built dams like any of his real counterparts. Nofziger never made any money off of his creation, as it was officially owned by the Forest Service, but he had no complaints. "He does not contribute to my family income," Nofzinger once said. "He is a public service. He is given away free." Nofziger continued to put out Joe Beaver cartoons until the end of the 1940s, when the mascot was no longer used by the Forest Service.

British Film Institute
Pop Culture
Where to Watch Over 300 British Animated Films for Free Online
British Film Institute
British Film Institute

The history of animation doesn’t begin and end with studios in Japan and the U.S. Artists in the UK have been drawing and sculpting cartoons for over a century, and now some of the best examples of the medium to come out of the country are available to view for free online.

As It’s Nice That reports, the British Film Institute has uploaded over 300 films to the new archive on BFI player. Dubbed "Animated Britain," the expansive collection includes hand-drawn and stop motion animation and many distinct styles in between. Viewers will find ads, documentaries, films for children, and films for adults dating from 1904 to the 21st century. Episodes of classic cartoons like SuperTed and Clangers as well as obscure clips that are hard to find elsewhere are represented.

The archive description reads:

“Through its own weird alchemy, animation can bring our wildest imaginings to life, and yet it can also be a powerful tool for exploring our everyday reality. Silly, surreal, sweet or caustic, this dizzyingly diverse selection showcases British animation's unique contribution to the art form, and offers a history ripe for rediscovery.”

This institution’s project marks their start of a whole year dedicated to animation. UK residents can stream the selected films for free at BFI player, or check out their rental offerings for more British animated classics.

[h/t It’s Nice That]

Pop Culture
Why Mickey Mouse Could Soon Be in the Public Domain

Mickey Mouse debuted to the world in the 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie, and has since transformed into an icon recognized around the world. But the mouse’s status as Disney's exclusive property is under threat. As Ars Technica reports, Steamboat Willie is set to enter the public domain in 2024, and unlike in previous years, there have been no moves from Congress to stop that from happening. Once it does, in theory, anyone could use Mickey's image for free.

This is the third time the cartoon has been on the verge of losing its copyright protection. The first came in the 1970s, back when copyright terms only lasted 56 years. That meant every book, song, and movie made in 1923 was scheduled to lose its protected status in 1979, and Steamboat Willie would follow on its 56th anniversary in 1984. But in 1976, under pressure from companies like Disney, Congress extended the statute to 75 years, keeping all works made after 1923 from becoming public domain until 1998 or later. Mickey remained safely out of the public domain for another two decades. Then, when copyright terms were again scheduled to expire in 1998, Congress extended them a second time, this time to 95 years.

Now, the clock is ticking down for these older works once again as the 2018 expiration date of that copyright extension nears. Only this time, it looks like Congress may let them become public property without a fight.

Today’s constituents tend to care more about copyright law now than they did in 1976 or even in 1998. The rise of online streaming and easily accessible pirated content has made the issue more relevant to the life of the average person than ever before. The defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 made this clear to legislators. That bill, which would have empowered law enforcement to punish or block sites sharing pirated content, was so controversial that it sparked protests across the web. Because of the sheer scale of that public response, lawmakers are now hesitant to change any existing copyright protections, including those set to expire on January 1, 2019.

But even if those protections expire, Disney could still find a way to prevent rival studios from using Mickey’s image when 2024 rolls around. While copyrights are designed to be temporary, trademarks have the potential for serious lasting power. That’s because copyrights only protect a single work of artistic expression (in this case, the film Steamboat Willie), while trademarks are attached to images and logos that represent a brand (so Mickey Mouse, the character). As long as Disney can prove that Mickey has evolved beyond his first screen appearance into a symbol that’s synonymous with its corporation, he’ll remain a protected property. And if you take a look at their theme parks, cruise ships, media, and the dozens of Hidden Mickeys they've hidden in their movies, you’ll see that they can easily make that case.

But few works of art made in the 1920s have taken the same path to corporate dominance as Mickey Mouse, even other works made famous by Disney (like Winnie the Pooh, first introduced in A.A. Milne's stories in 1926). Even if Disney manages to protect Mickey, the public should have a big new batch of copyright-free content to access in the next few years.

[h/t Ars Technica]


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