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How a Tribal Fire Crew Rescued the Real Smokey Bear

Posted by Sandy Marin, Tribal Relations, USDA Forest Service in Forestry
Dec 31, 2019
Adolph Samora, one of the original members of the Taos Pueblo Snowball crew
Adolph Samora, one of the original members of the Taos Pueblo Snowball crew responsible for the rescue of Smokey Bear. Photo/Smokey Bear LIVE

This year, we celebrated Smokey Bear’s 75th birthday as a national fire prevention icon. Many know Smokey’s message: “Only YOU can prevent wildfires,” but fewer people may know that Smokey was a real American black bear rescued, in the spring of 1950, from a raging wildfire in New Mexico.

The Los Tablos and Capitan Gap fires, which burned over 17,000 acres, were stoked by 70-mile per hour winds that made the fires hard to fight. The Taos Pueblo Snowball crew formed when the war chief of the tribe called all available firefighters to quench the blaze in the Lincoln National Forest. Twenty-five volunteers boarded a school bus and began the long journey to fight the growing fires, fueled by gusting winds and high temperatures. It was only the second fire-fighting experience for the rookie crew. The men spent 28 long days fighting the fires.

The crew rescued the five-pound American black bear cub who later became known as “Smokey” out of the embers. Adolph Samora, a member of the Snowball crew, remembers putting out fire hotspots when some other firefighters called him over to what looked like a crumpled jacket lying on the ground.

“The little cub was covered,” he said. “[A crewmember] picked it up and placed it in my arms. The cub had blisters all over his hands and feet.” Crew members wrapped the three-month-old cub in their own jackets to protect his badly burned paws while they transported the little bear to safety.

A local family nursed Smokey back to health, and the bear was later moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he lived for the next 26 years. The story of Smokey’s rescue can be viewed at Smokey Bear LIVE from the Lincoln National Forest.

The Forest Service and the U.S. Advertising Council created Smokey Bear in 1944. Since then, Smokey Bear has become the longest running public service campaign in our nation’s history. His 75th anniversary celebration began with an appearance in the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day and finished with his appearance on Smokey Bear-themed ornaments for the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree. Other highlights included a new Smokey Bear exhibit at the National Zoo in D.C. and a birthday party at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery. But the crown jewel of a wonderful birthday year was the giant Smokey balloon floating down 5th Avenue in New York City during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

So how can you honor Smokey at the conclusion of his 75th birthday year celebration? Help in his lifelong mission of fire prevention, because only YOU can help prevent wildfires.

Taos Pueblo Snowball Crew
The Taos Pueblo Snowball Crew. Photo/Bureau of Indian Affairs
Category/Topic: Forestry

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Maria Rodriguez
Jan 01, 2020

Does anyone know the lnames of all involved firefighters?

Hazel Richard
Jan 07, 2020

A great true story about Smokey the Bear with facts I didn't know! The good Smokey has done over the years has helped keep the fires under control. Thank you!!

Les Denny
Jan 10, 2020

I am a little confused which isn't unusual. The wildfire was in 1950 and we celebrated Smokey's 75th birthday? One of these numbers is not correct?

Ben Weaver
Jan 13, 2020

@Les Denny - thank you for your comment. The actual Smokey bear was found in New Mexico in 1950, and he resembled Smokey from the Cooperative Forest Fire Campaign Posters. The illustrated symbol of Wildfire Prevention was created by Albert Staehle in 1944 – hence the 75th birthday of the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign. Check out for more information and history.