Smokey Bear’s 70th birthday celebration Saturday

Dressed in blue jeans, a ranger hat and often seen carrying a shovel, Smokey Bear, an icon since 1944, is celebrating his 70th birthday at Burr Oak State Park this weekend.

Smokey’s birthday on Aug. 9, 1944 was caused in part by a nationwide concern that forest fires would wipe out much-needed wood for the World War II war effort. When Walt Disney released “Bambi” in 1944, he allowed the forest service the use of his forest animals to promote forest fire prevention for one year. The appeal of the animals helped get the message of preventing forest fires across to the public and the forest service adopted a bear as its fire safety mascot.

Burr Oak has teamed up with the Wayne National Forest to put on Saturday’s festivities at the state park, which will include photo ops with Smokey, a close-up look at a fire engine and many children’s activities.

Heather Sheets, Burr Oak naturalist, said the hope is for at least 100 people to come out and see Smokey and his Forest Friends.

“I think meeting Smokey and the Smokey Bear Forest Friends will stress a healthy forest,” she said. “Don’t leave a trace when you leave the park, no littering.

She said one of the activities children might like most is the Hocking College Nature Center exhibit.

“(They are) bringing their snakes (to the event),” Sheets said. “I’ll have skins, skulls and animal tracks and probably a few craft activities.”

Gary Chancey, public affairs officer for the Wayne National Forest, said since Smokey’s message started getting out in 1944, statistics show a decrease in forest fires.

“Nationally Smokey Bear has decreased the number of acres lost (to fires),” said Chancey. “It was nearly 22 million in 1944, down to an average of 6.7 million today. Wild fire prevention remains the most critical issue in our country (today).”

Chancey said one big thing Smokey does is correct assumptions that many people have.

“Many Americans believe lightning starts most fires, but nine out of 10 fires nationwide are started by humans,” he said. “They’re most commonly caused by leaving campfires unattended…We want people to be mindful of that. We’re very green (in the area); we’re blessed with a lot of foliage but fires can still happen.”

Sheets said Smokey’s birthday celebration coincides with Burr Oak’s annual luau, which runs from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and includes free boat rides, a DJ, beach games and food.

Sheets said Smokey’s importance is for those of all ages.

“The importance is in teaching or reminding families the importance of fire safety, especially with the Wayne National Forest all around us,” she said.

Likewise, Chancey said that getting information out to the younger generation is critical to preventing a major forest fire.

“Young people are the future generation to take care of the national forest and the outdoor community,” he said. “It’s critical to reach out to them so they can understand who Smokey Bear is and his message.”