Smokey Bear celebrates 75 years of preventing wildfires

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OCONTO FALLS, Wis. (WBAY) - Right now is the most dangerous time of the year for wildfires in Wisconsin.

Last year more than 800 wildfires charred nearly 2,000 acres in Wisconsin last spring, and just about every fire was preventable.

"You hear the old adage 9 out of 10, and it's pretty true. For eight years I've been working here, and 95 percent or more are people-caused. A lot of those are people in their yard in the spring," DNR forest ranger Chris Duncan says.

Since 1944, Smokey Bear has urged wildfire prevention.

"He is really one of our best tools for getting the word out there, you know, 'Only you can prevent wildfires.' Everybody knows that one," Duncan says.

Celebrating his 75th birthday this year, Smokey Bear is the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history -- and he's evolved over the years, originally from a live bear injured in a fire to an anthropomorphic, talking bear in denims and a ranger's hat.

"He's kind of interesting if you look back. Some of those costumes and stuff they had in the past almost were scary looking, sharp fangs and everything, but they made him real personable with the blue jeans and everything and he's soft spoken."

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, in communities across the country, Smokey continues to issue fire danger warnings.

He also remains a constant visitor in schools.

"I do several programs in the local area here from Pre-K all the way through 3rd, 5th grade where we have Smokey visit, and their eyes light up," Duncan says.

"(Smokey) teaches them about campfire safety, and if you start at that age the hope is with that prevention it carries through to when they're adults and maybe burning that leaf pile in the backyard."

Read the original version of this article at www.wbay.com.